Pamela Webb has job security.
Since the February passing of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, commonly known as the stimulus package, Webb and the rest of the Sponsored Projects Administration at the University of Minnesota have seen their workload double.
Webb and SPA, which she oversees, are in charge of helping researchers apply, retrieve and report research grants from federal institutions like the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. With millions of extra stimulus dollars flowing into research funding pools, University faculty members have inundated SPA with proposals to get their share of recovery funds.
The University currently has 856 proposals pending, totaling almost $669 million in stimulus research funds submitted to various institutions under the wing of the federal government.
And that’s just in stimulus grants.
These funds are in addition to the nearly $700 million in research funds the University applies for annually.
“It was day after day after day at one point,” Webb said. “We were doing marathon proposal sessions, submitting proposals from six in the morning until 10 at night and spending weekends on campus.”
The University has received more than $72 million in approved extra research stimulus dollars to date to fund 101 different proposals.
Within each of these grants lies what University Senior Vice President and Provost Tom Sullivan call a “transforming potential” — poising University researchers for breakthroughs in cancer research, pulmonary disease and a chance to better understand the matter that makes up the universe.
The stimulus package increased 2009 funding for the National Science Foundation by $3 billion and $8.2 billion for the National Institutes of Health. These dollars are being rapidly infused into universities across the country for research projects and infrastructure.
“The first challenge was getting reliable information out to the community when the stimulus bill was passed,” Tim Mulcahy, vice president for research at the University, said. “There was a lot of information being disseminated from many sources, some was outdated and it was changing all the time.”
In order to establish a consistent, authoritative source of information for University faculty and staff, Mulcahy and his office created a research stimulus Web site, an endeavor he calls a “tremendous” success.
Now award notices and funds are flowing in at a rate that’s faster than Mulcahy expected, and as deadlines pass he anticipates the pace will quicken.
Of the more than $72 million coming to the University in research grants, the largest portion — $40 million — helped fund a new physics research facility in northern Minnesota that will eventually house a 15,000 ton neutrino detector.
The $40 million, allocated to the Institute of Technology, is misleading as to how many stimulus grants the school received, Institute of Technology associate dean Mostafa Kaveh said.
Smaller grants have, for the most part, gone to the University Medical School, which currently has more than $17 million for 43 stimulus-backed research grants.
Funded projects range from research in neural circuitry and pulmonary disease to diagnosing prostate cancer.
But some of the Medical School’s largest proposals still awaiting approval are for infrastructure, Mark Paller, executive vice dean of the Medical school, said.
The Medical School submitted about five large grants in the $10 million range for improvements to laboratories and in some cases, to construct new ones, including a new animal imaging facility in Jackson Hall, Paller said.
While researchers are grateful to have extra funds flowing in, many admit there are better ways to put the dollars to use.
“The problem with the stimulus in terms of dollars is how much does it buy you?” Susan Marino, an assistant professor in the College of Pharmacology who received a stimulus grant, said.
Marino, whose grant came from a special stimulus-funded Summer Student Supplement, used her funds to employ two high school students, one undergraduate and a recent graduate to help analyze the effects of drugs on cognition.
While Marino is grateful for the funds, she said the stimulus grants have been relatively small and are being stretched thin across the nation’s universities.
Greg Metzger, an associate professor in the Medical School and Department of Radiology, agrees.
Metzger received a stimulus grant to support three students in his lab for the next two summers. The grant, totaling $50,000, allows the students to aid an already running research project working to diagnose prostate cancer using MRI technology.
MRI technology has the ability to detect the aggressiveness of prostate cancer better than current tests and aid in the staging — and ultimately the treating — of the disease, Metzger said.
“In general, $50,000 stretched over two years is relatively small,” he said.
Metzger said he also thinks that the two-year research window the stimulus grant requires is not realistic for most projects, which usually span four to five years.
“Most projects are longer term and hard to accelerate,” he said, adding that a better application of stimulus funds would have been to fund certain projects longer than two years.
Jennifer Zick, a neuroscience senior, began working under a stimulus grant in mid-July. Zick’s grant allowed her to aid a study analyzing the difference between the brains of healthy animals and those with neurodegenerative diseases.
But starting so late in the summer, Zick said she spent more time assisting in lab work than participating.
“Six months to a year is more feasible for an undergraduate to be prepped enough to really help with the research,” Justin Barnes, a graduate student overseeing Zick, said, adding that he feared the undergraduates were being “misused” with summer job stimulus grants.
Barnes also feels sudden availability of stimulus dollars for research adds to a “funding obsession” that already exists in academia.
“Most researchers applied for stimulus grants because they need more money, but I think some did just because it was there,” Barnes said. “It’s great to get more money, but if you don’t have a good way to use it then what is it worth?”
Many challenges with the stimulus outside of the education sphere fall in the realm of allocation. To date, only $85 billion of the spending portion of the stimulus package has gone out the door, leaving $496 billion still sitting in the hands of the federal government, according to ProPublica, a nonprofit news source.
But getting its allowance has been the least troublesome aspect of the stimulus package for the University.
As soon as the University is notified of stimulus awards, they write out checks that are later reimbursed by the federal government.
The University is already putting its share of the stimulus to use, but has yet to send out a reimbursement bill to the federal government, University Chief Financial Officer Richard Pfutzenreuter said. The money spent in the meantime is University money.
“We have to spend our own money and then we get federal money back in, and I’m not going to let too many days go by,” he said, adding that he expects to send out the first bill in mid September.
Starting Oct. 10, the University owes the government detailed reports on how stimulus dollars are being spent.
While all research grants from the federal government must be reported, the stimulus grants require increased reporting from annually to quarterly and include more than 100 new data elements that aren’t required for non-stimulus grants, Webb said.
“We are still unsure of some of the reporting requirements for these funds even though we are six weeks out from the first reporting deadline,” Webb said.
One new data element is the number of jobs created, not only at the University directly, but through subcontractors the University hires.
In order to brief faculty on the intensity of the reporting requirements for stimulus grants, the University is holding informational meetings that Webb hopes will prepare them for the workload over the next two years.
Despite a campus-wide hiring freeze, the stimulus has increased the number of employees on campus, fulfilling one of the main goals of the recovery package.
“That’s the single most common reason for permission to hire someone,” Paller said. “Someone received a grant that requires them to hire people.”
Kola Okuyemi, director of the Health Disparities Research Program at the University, received more than $360,000 to give 10 high school and college students a chance to explore careers in the health field and get paid while doing it. Students received a $3,200 stipend for eight weeks.
“We are talking about jobs here,” Okuyemi said. “These students could be working at McDonalds or Burger King over the summer or not even at all, but with these funds they are getting paid to get a head start in a health career.”
The stimulus funds the University garnered through research proposals are only half of the stimulus picture. Research dollars come on top of $89.3 million in state fiscal stabilization funds the University received in May as part of the stimulus package.
More than half of the funds —$50 million — went to holding the in-state tuition rate increase to 3 percent, reduced from the full 7.5 percent.
The other $39 million was dedicated to preserving jobs.
In June, University President Bob Bruininks presented his 2010 budget facing $95 million in cuts. His budget proposed to shed more than 1,200 jobs on campus, or 5.5 percent of the University’s workforce.
However, stimulus dollars created 56 temporary, two-year jobs on campus and saved 230 others, “bridging the gap” between budget troubles and better times, Sullivan said.
The final picture of the stimulus and the University is still unclear. Nearly 1,000 University proposals still sit with the federal government, waiting to be reviewed.
And on the horizon is the disappearance of these extra dollars, something University officials fear will take away building momentum.
“Research programs don’t just start and stop, they build, and to have students funded for a year or two and then not have the opportunity anymore puts a chasm in that progress,” Webb said. “We have to look far enough out to how to continue the benefits of the research that is being funded in the next two years.”
Mulcahy is also concerned about how the stimulus-backed jobs are going to be supported after the stimulus package runs out.
“In the foreseeable future, it’s going to be about how we maintain the momentum that the stimulus has provided,” Mulcahy said. “Not only for research, but how do we support the people who were supported by the stimulus?”
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