Military supports research at U

The Department of Defense in 2002 spent $16.6 million for research grants, contracts at the U.

by Nathan Hall

Three years ago, University professor Carol Lange needed to find a way to pay a graduate student to help with breast cancer research.

So the University suggested she turn to an unlikely medical funding ally: the military.

In the 2002 fiscal year, the Department of Defense spent $16.6 million on research grants and contracts at the University, totaling approximately 3 percent of the institution’s total research grant and contract revenue.

A significant portion of that money goes toward learning about topics with security-minded themes.

However, millions of dollars are also doled out for what is referred to as “dual use” research – studies that simultaneously benefit civilians and soldiers. Ovarian cancer, tumors and tobacco addiction are a few of the dozens of maladies the Pentagon is investing money to research.

Cold War legacy

The nation’s military-industrial complex, as former President Dwight D. Eisenhower described it during a 1961 speech, grew during the war on communism. The federal highway systems, the Internet and M&M’s are a few examples of the innovations hatched for strategic top-secret purposes that later trickled down to benefit the general public.

But after the Berlin Wall fell on Nov. 9, 1989, the Defense Department was faced with another challenge – justifying its large budget in the absence of an enemy, said University breast cancer researcher Doug Yee, who has served on review boards for the National Institutes of Health and Department of Defense. To minimize impending cuts, the department had to find new ways to spend its money.

In 1992, former President Bill Clinton authorized the defense department’s creation of the Congressionally Directed Medical Research Program, which was set up to help screen and diagnose breast cancer for military women and dependents.

Yee said the health institutes opposed the program for excessively overlapping with its own research priorities. Still, Congress immediately appropriated $25 million for the program, and after continued lobbying by the National Breast Cancer Coalition, approved an additional $210 million in 1993.

Today, only the National Cancer Institute pays for more breast cancer research than the defense department. The military’s medical program has since expanded to other areas, including osteoporosis, sclerosis and leukemia.

“There’s always going to be turf battles in Washington,” said Dan Koslofsky, legislative director for the Washington D.C.-based nonprofit Council for a Livable World. The military was doing disease research before the National Institutes of Health were founded, he said.

Steve Heinig, a senior research fellow at the Association of American Medical Colleges, said his organization “is supportive of medical research across the board, no matter where it comes from.”

In a prepared statement, Col. Melissa Forsythe, the program’s deputy director, said “improving the diagnosis, treatment and ultimately curing these diseases affects military members, their families and the American public.”

Don Ralbovsky, a National Institutes of Health spokesperson, declined to comment for this story.

Race for the cure

Lange, who also sat on a handful of Defense Department grant review boards, applied for a Defense Department grant but was turned down. She receives the majority of her backing from the National Institutes of Health, but said she definitely supports the military program.

Defense Department grant selection methods differ drastically from those of the National Institutes of Health, Lange said.

“It’s open to non-U.S. citizens, so those who don’t work for a premier research university, but have a potentially great idea, can try it,” Lange said. “They also include civilian survivors of the disease to weigh in on the review process and they help tremendously with focusing us towards practicality rather than science for the sake of science.”

Yee, a professor in the University’s Department of Medicine and leader of their breast cancer research program, said the Defense Department’s medical research program received high marks from the independent review committee.

“It has its good points and its bad,” said Yee. “There’s a lot more cumbersome paperwork Ö but it’s a value (for) taxpayers in the long run as a teaching and training tool.”

Michel Sanders, a University biochemistry professor who paid a pre-doctoral student aide using a Defense Department grant, also said the Army’s scholastic criteria differ significantly from other federal agencies.

“They only have one deadline a year, so you find out quicker if you got it or not,” Sanders said. “It’s a shorter duration and there isn’t as much of a heavily rigorous emphasis on preliminary findings.”

Building a better mousetrap

Other University researchers working on Department of Defense grants include Babak Ziaie, an assistant professor in the electrical and computer engineering department. Ziaie is working on an implantable device that will be able to monitor a patient’s glucose levels – much like the medical sensor scanners used on Star Trek.

“(The military is) interested because they want to know how long soldiers can go without eating,” Ziaie said.

Ronald Siegel, a University pharmaceutical professor working with Ziaie, said the research could help measure battle fatigue.

“The National Institutes of Health is unlikely to fund what we’re doing here,” Siegel said.

Stranded service personnel and computer consumers alike stand to benefit from Keshab Parhi’s findings. Working under a variety of Defense Department subsidies, Parhi, an electrical and computer engineering professor, is trying to develop a powerful laptop computer that runs on a minimal amount of battery power.

“Sustaining this research will help private industry,” Parhi said. “The Defense Department has very specific needs but meeting those needs has also made innovative consumer electronics more affordable as well.”

Yousef Saad, a University computer science and engineering professor, is working under a three-year Defense Department grant solving large math equations. Saad said although the armed services could use it for “penetration mechanics” – seeing how the shell of a missile performs – the data will assist aerospace engineering as well.

Nathan Hall welcomes comments at [email protected]