Stimulus buoys U to record funding

Stimulus funds allowed the U to add staff and build momentum, but as funds phase out, so could the projects they supported.

Conor Shine

The University of Minnesota brought in record amounts of research funding in 2010, but the dwindling flow of federal stimulus dollars and declining state support could limit future growth.
In fiscal year 2010, which ended June 30, $823 million in research grants and contracts were awarded to the University, a 36 percent increase over the $607 million brought in the previous fiscal year.
Of the $823 million brought in, $132 million came from the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, commonly known as the stimulus package.
But ARRA funding is set to wind down at the end of September, and significantly less funding will be distributed after that point, Vice President for Research Tim Mulcahy said.
The availability of stimulus funds allowed the University to add staff and build momentum in its research efforts, he said, but as the funds phase out, so could some of the projects they helped support.
“We’re all wrestling with, ‘What does this mean?’” Mulcahy said. “Some [projects] will undoubtedly close out when the stimulus funding closes out.”
Mulcahy also expressed concerns that declining state aid and a tightening University budget could impact research growth.
“There have been in the past two or three very specific periods where our growth either stagnated or declined … Each one of those periods followed right on the heels of a significant state budget cut to the University,” he said. “I’m afraid that we might see a repeat trend here where our productivity and our momentum fall off.”
While the increased availability of funding due to the stimulus played a part in the record-breaking year, Mulcahy also credited faculty and staff for generating and processing more funding applications than ever before.
University researchers applied for nearly 1,000 more grants than they did in 2009 and brought in a total of 4,404 awards in 2010. Mulcahy said that every college saw an increase in research awards over the past year.
“First and foremost, what you’re seeing here is the creativity and productivity of faculty,” he said. “The faculty put more grants in and they were obviously more competitive.”
The recently re-enacted America COMPETES Act could help fill in some of the gap left by the stimulus funds, Mulcahy said, and the University is also helping researchers contend for increasingly competitive funding opportunities.
The University will spend $20 million to fund major equipment purchases, personnel costs and other infrastructure to support research through the Infrastructure Investment Initiative, which was announced in July.
Mulcahy said the University has also been successful in using its own funds to support pilot projects or provide matching funds to help projects compete nationally.
Two researchers receiving grants last year were soil, water and climate professor Tracy Twine and her colleague Jason Hill. They recently received a $1 million grant from the Department of Energy to study sustainable biomass production processes in different
geographic areas.
Twine said the new project was prompted by previous research she and Hill, a bioproducts and biosystems engineering professor, had done that was funded by the University’s Institute for Renewable Energy and the Environment.
The two researchers will be leading a study of which strategies are most effective for producing biomass — things like grasses, corn or crop residues — which are used in manufacturing biofuels and bioproducts.