Some stimulus money used for science grants runs out next year

Oct 22 2010 - 2:18pm

At Duke University, some scientists call it "The Cliff."

That's shorthand for next September, when federal funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act starts running out.

ARRA, known broadly as the "stimulus" program, has pumped $787 million into the nation's economy, a good chunk of that going to science research. In quick order, it created jobs and spurred ambitious new research programs.

But now, researchers must start to prepare for life without it.

"It makes people very nervous," said Marianne Hassan, associate dean with Duke's Pratt School of Engineering and the team leader for Duke's ARRA Response Team. "People who have been in research a long time know the ebbs and flows. But that doesn't make it any easier."

The stimulus money was intended to be a short-term fix -- a way to get people working until the economy rebounded.

To be clear, there's no single cutoff. The stimulus money was doled out in all sorts of ways. Some research grants funded projects for just two years; others stretched far longer, which means some endeavors won't use up their funding for several years.

But much of the early funding expires next year, leaving faculty members, their postdoctoral fellows, graduate students and other staff members scrambling either to find new funding to continue their projects or to find work elsewhere.

At Duke, for example, about 300 of 371 stimulus projects expire in September, Hassan said.

Scientists are used to being on the hunt for grant funds to keep their work going. But with the stimulus money expiring across the nation, the sheer magnitude of need will likely assure that demand for new grant money outstrips supply.

At Duke, not all stimulus money pays salaries. The university won two grants totaling about $20 million to help build new laboratories. Construction grants bring risks and rewards; there's an immediate economic payoff in the jobs created while facilities are built. But there are the long-term budget risks associated with the continuing operations of new facilities, Hassan said.

"We always have to be able to sustain the building -- the bills, the maintenance, everything," she said.

Equipment, on the other hand, makes everyone happy because it doesn't go away after the money is spent. Duke won at least 10 stimulus grants for high-priced, high-tech research equipment, including a $500,000 microscope that takes fluorescent images, separates colors and can mark particular characteristics of a cell.

It is housed in Duke's Light Microscopy Core Facility, where scientists can rent it by the hour. (It's $13 an hour for the first two hours, if you're interested.)

"Microscopes are pretty expensive, and the high-end ones are out of reach of most research groups," said Sam Johnson, who directs the microscopy facility. "It's been pretty popular by far."

Reach Eric Ferreri at eric.ferreri(at)newsobserver.com.

 

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