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Stimulus funds provide research boost

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Jobs, knowledge promoted by federal economic push

In remarks last month at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Md., President Barack Obama said not only do we need stimulus money to create thousands of jobs in the sciences and technology, but also to get the progress of the nation’s research back on track.

“We can only imagine the new discoveries that will flow from the investments we make today,” Obama said. “Breakthroughs in medical research take far more than the occasional flash of brilliance, as important as that can be. Progress takes time; it takes hard work; it can be unpredictable; it can require a willingness to take risks and going down some blind alleys occasionally — figuring out what doesn’t work is sometimes as important as figuring out what does — all of this needs the support of government. It holds promise like no other area of human endeavor, but we’ve got to make a commitment to it.”

And just last week (Oct. 5), NIH Director Francis Collins went further. In a New York Times interview he warned that “the opportunities [for scientific advances] have almost never been as exciting and the perils have never been as high” because of years of flat funding.

It may not be audible, but a clear sigh of relief is emanating from laboratories across Harvard University this fall, as the infusion of federal stimulus dollars provides new opportunities for faculty to bring their cutting edge ideas forward to participate in a national peer review competition to expand upon and create new knowledge.

After years of flat or declining federal funding that left established researchers treading water and young researchers struggling to begin their work, the billions now flowing as a result of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) have provided a welcome shot in the arm for researchers at Harvard and across the nation.

Harvard Provost Steven E. Hyman said Harvard is not only happy that its researchers — in medical as well as other fields of research — are benefiting from the influx of funds, but the University is also proud to be a part of a national endeavor to re-energize research and stimulate the economy.

“We are gratified that as our leaders in Washington provide essential funding for our physical national infrastructure they recognize as well the vital role university research should play in our national recovery by stimulating both current economic vitality and laying the foundation — through research, discovery, and innovation — for future innovations that will be carried on modernized roads, networks, and grids,” Hyman said.

Margaret Livingstone, a professor of neurobiology at Harvard Medical School, said the new funding has changed her daily life. In recent years, she spent more and more time at the computer writing grant applications to get the funding her laboratory needed to continue investigations of how the visual system processes information and less time conducting the actual research.

“I think it’s sad that people who are trained to do research and who are good at doing research are spinning their wheels writing grants,” Livingstone said. “Now I’m back to doing research.”

Livingstone said the $300,000 grant she received through the National Institutes of Health has not only allowed her to turn from administrative chores to research herself, but prompted her to hire an additional postdoctoral fellow and begin a search for a second. She has also bought equipment that extracts the tiny electrical signals issued by cells in the vision system for analysis.

Timothy Mitchison, the Hasib Sabbagh Professor of Systems Biology, said that some ARRA funds will go to specialized equipment purchases, like those of Livingstone, boosting high-technology manufacturing.

“Specialty equipment often is necessary to pursue the precise work contemplated in these kinds of cutting edge research,” Mitchison said. “In fact, a high-tech industry exists that includes many small American companies that develop these specialty items. Some of these will mature into widely used technologies, for example in medical diagnostics.  ARRA funding will certainly provide a boost to these entities as laboratories gear up for their work.”

From 2003 to 2008, flat funding of NIH research programs led to an 11 percent decline in purchasing power due to inflation. This financial squeeze meant that fewer proposals were funded and by 2007, the overall effect was that three out of four grant proposals to the NIH went unfunded. Young investigators trying to establish their careers have been hit hardest, as the average age of a first-time recipient of the NIH’s main grant program, called an R01 grant, reached 43 years.

The net result has been a system whose arteries are clogged with highly rated proposals in search of scarce federal dollars, according to a report released in March 2008, “A Broken Pipeline? Flat Funding of NIH Puts a Generation of Science at Risk.” While science continued under constrained conditions, demand for funding was pent-up, especially discouraging younger researchers, who can be dissuaded from choosing careers in science. Testifying on the release of that report before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, Harvard President Drew Faust commented that even as those compiling the report became “fearful that our nation’s dampened commitment to biomedical research was hindering scientists’ abilities to speed therapies to the bedside, our attention was collectively drawn to an even more damaging longer term impact ­­— the loss and discouragement of a generation of researchers.”

At the National Science Foundation (NSF), similar trends were observed. In 2000, 30 percent of grant applications were funded, a rate that fell to 21 percent by 2008, according to the NSF. So many high quality proposals have gone unfunded that the NSF plans to use almost its entire $2.5 billion research allocation from the Recovery Act to clear its backlog of high quality, peer-reviewed proposals rather than request a new round of proposals.

The science financed by the Recovery Act can now release some of this pent-up scientific demand, as well as confront some of the central issues facing the planet today. Two proposals that recently received NSF stimulus funds will help provide a clearer view of the dangers of climate change. One, which went to Assistant Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences Peter Huybers, will finance a project to apply a new algorithm for examining the relationship between precipitation and temperature using proxy records of climate, such as from tree rings, in conjunction with instrumental records.

“This will allow me, a postdoc, and a student to pursue that work in a lot more detail than would otherwise be the case,” Huybers said.

Weld Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry James Anderson recently received notice that an instrument project he’d proposed was approved using stimulus funds. The project, he said, aims to fill in one of the glaring gaps in climate change predictions: the effect of melting permafrost on atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. The frozen ground in the world’s coldest regions contains a lot of methane, itself a greenhouse gas, which breaks down to carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. With rising temperatures, the permafrost is melting, but scientists don’t know how much methane is escaping as a result. The impact on climate change is potentially enormous, Anderson said, as melting permafrost can possibly release more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than all human fossil fuel burning.

“A 1 percent melt rate adds 10 gigatons of carbon to the atmosphere each year. The entire worldwide combustion of fossil fuels only adds eight [gigatons],” Anderson said. “So this is an example of a truly lethal feedback. How do you ever re-freeze the system, once it starts releasing its carbon?”

Livingstone, Mitchison, Huybers, and Anderson are not alone. As of early October, Harvard had received more than 180 ARRA grants totaling $144.8 million, 77 percent through the National Institutes of Health, 22 percent through the National Science Foundation, and the balance from other places, including subcontracts for other grant recipients

The government’s funding commitment comes with a responsibility to ensure the funds are used wisely, according to Harvard’s Vice Provost for Research David Korn.

“These funds are being used to achieve the unique goals of the ARRA and require enhanced oversight and reporting that will assure the public that every dollar is going to productive uses,” Korn said. “We take no responsibility more seriously. In just months, dozens of dedicated staff have helped both process and submit more than 700 creative grant proposals from faculty across the University and are now reporting — in detail — on every one of the 190-plus awards we thus far have received. These specialists are engaged in jobs that will not show up in calculations associated with stimulus money, but the work conducted is integral to preserving the public support for the investment of these funds in cutting edge scientific research.”

While this surge of scientific investigation across the country fueled by ARRA will lead to downstream innovations that will spur the economy in years ahead, Hyman said scientific funding is a critical component of the local economy in places like Boston, one of the world’s foremost hubs of life science research and development, because a large percentage of this federal funding is spent locally.

“Our success in the national competition for ARRA-sponsored research funding will surely move science forward and simultaneously enhance our already substantial economic impact to the region by adding to the two-thirds of the University’s budget that is spent locally,” Hyman said.

According to a January 2009 study by the New York-based research firm Appleseed, Harvard’s impact on the regional economy, both directly and indirectly, was $4.8 billion in 2008, generating thousands of local jobs and attracting hundreds of millions in research dollars. Among Greater Boston’s largest employers, Harvard has paid $1.3 billion to Boston-area suppliers and contractors for goods and services, construction, and other spending, directly supporting an additional 9,100 full-time equivalent jobs in the Boston metropolitan area.

“In the context of the current economic downturn, ARRA funding will buttress this critical role Harvard plays in our regional economy while pushing the progress of science  — the dual purpose the president and Congress intended,” said Kevin Casey, Harvard’s associate vice president for government, community and public affairs.

Faust said the stimulus funding just strengthens the partnership between the government and the nation’s research universities to promote the kinds of investigation in which industry is often not interested

“This boost of federal funding is an important endorsement of the critical role University-based research plays in our nation’s economic recovery and renewal,” Faust said. “America has created a bold partnership between the federal government and our research universities over the last 50 years, fueled by a spirit of pioneering innovation and creative discovery. This partnership is even more critical today, when the leaders of the global economy are increasingly those who most effectively harness new discoveries in science and engineering.”

One young investigator who will be spared the kind of discouragement Faust testified about in 2008 is Priscilla Yang, assistant professor of microbiology and molecular genetics at Harvard Medical School. Yang said that, as a junior faculty member, the new funding is important. Her stimulus grant, $275,000 over two years, will go to develop mouse models for hepatitis C virus, which is the leading cause of liver cancer in the United States. Yang hopes the award, made through a funding mechanism for developmental/exploratory projects, will help her group to develop much-needed tools for studying the virus and evaluating new potential treatments.

While the current funding scenario is encouraging, Casey echoed the concerns of federal officials such as NIH Director Collins about the direction of future funding. Collins said Oct. 7 in a published report that unless underlying NIH appropriations experience some continued growth in the wake of the two-year stimulus program, success rates of grant applications will fall to historic lows, where funding may be available for just over one in 10 proposals. Casey said he hoped the renewed federal commitment to science is maintained in the future so that researchers across the nation finally getting traction with the influx of recovery funds — and those who will follow — will build upon this new foundation.