October 6, 2009

Stimulus fills gaps in research funding

Correction appended.

University of Chicago researchers received $42 million in federal grants this week, part of a $5 billion stimulus package for scientific research in hopes of jump-starting the economy and encouraging innovation.

The University’s grants, announced Wednesday by President Barack Obama, range from $10,000 to $5.6 million. One hundred researchers were awarded funding based on proposals by individual faculty members.

Carole Ober and Dan Nicolae, professors of genetics who plan on pooling data on asthma genes from nine universities in order to conduct a meta-analysis, received the largest grant.

“The funding will allow us to do this research on a much grander scale than any of the investigators could have done individually and over a much shorter time scale than what could have been done through traditional grant mechanisms,” Ober said in an e-mail, adding that the methods could save three years of work.

The announcement follows the award of 77 smaller packages totaling $25.4 million in University funding, part of the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act of 2009.

The increase in funding will reduce the strain on the University’s budget caused by the recent recession, according to University spokesman Steve Kloehn. The University has relied on the National Institute of Health, the National Science Foundation, and the Department of Energy in the past as well.

The money also supplements the large decrease in graduate student funding this year. The National Research Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program received $2 million, which will be used to fund the cost of tuition and stipends of $30,000 for graduate students, bringing the total number of U of C fellows to 49.

Many of the grants went to projects that aim to create cheaper and more efficient ways to conduct research and investigate health issues.

Jerry Krishnan, Associate Professor of Medicine and Epidemiology and Director of Asthma and COPD Center, was awarded nearly $4 million to develop a national infrastructure to evaluate the treatments for chronic pulmonary disease, a leading cause of death in the United States, which can be caused by smoking or breathing in toxic fumes.

“Comparative effectiveness studies will allow us to compare the benefits and harms of different interventions and strategies to prevent, diagnose, treat, and monitor health conditions in ‘real world’ settings,” Krishnan said in an e-mail.

Associate Professor Kathleen Millen plans on developing a cheaper and more efficient way to use mouse models to test for genes affecting certain diseases. Millen’s $500,000 grant gives her the opportunity “to pursue something with the potential to revolutionize how we use models to screen candidate genes to prove that they cause disease. Currently the process is very expensive and time-consuming.”

If all goes according to plan, projects like Millen’s will have the effect Obama hoped the stimulus would have: This year, her lab will be spending “tens of thousands of dollars” and hiring multiple employees, and the long-term impact will improve health care and reduce its cost.

“If this works, we can change the way this process is done,” Millen said. However, she has some reservations. “The stimulus package is a fantastic opportunity, but there is a longer-term problem in the funding of science research. This saved us for two years, after eight years of unpredictable funding, but in 2011 there has to be continued support or research will stagnate.”