Government increases science research funding for WU through stimulus

| Senior News Editor

In March of 2007, Washington University joined other top research institutions in issuing a report to Congress stating that limited funding for science research was having an adverse impact on the treatment of diseases like Alzheimer’s and cancer. In a sign of changing times, the University received a $10 million federal research grant this summer to study Alzheimer’s and another $10 million to expand its world-famous study on the genomes of cancer patients.

Science researchers at the University say they are enjoying a spike in federal funding, thanks in large part to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. So far, the University has received around $80 million in stimulus-related research funding, most of it for science. The money comes as a result of some 200 grants the University has received in the last year, culled from more than 900 grants for which University researchers applied.

Federal research dollars have mostly funded projects at the medical school. In June, for example, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) extended a five-year, $37 million grant to medical researchers studying biodefense and emerging infectious diseases in the Midwest. The NIH also gave the medical school $19 million to study microbes in the human body and the role they play in health and disease.

George Weinstock, professor of genetics at the medical school, is heading the medical school’s microbe study. Weinstock is also directing a $2 million stimulus-funded study on a bacterial infection called MRSA.

“We are doing very well and are in an expansion mode as we received funding for about 10 projects last year,” Weinstock said. “We’re going a little nuts keeping up with all the work, but it’s a heady feeling to have the opportunity to do so much cool science and contribute to the biomedical realm.”

Weinstock said science research is only just getting a jump-start in funding now that President Bush has left office.

“The Bush administration did a tremendous amount of damage to funding for scientific research,” Weinstock said. “Prior to the administration, there had been a lot more funding for the NIH. We’ll just have to see in the new administration whether they’re going to be able to get the momentum back in the scientific research.”

He said stimulus funding has proven helpful to scientific research, but it does not guarantee strong science research funding from Obama in the future.

“We’re still navigating choppy waters, and time will tell how it all comes out,” Weinstock said.

$20 million biology grant is largest ever to Danforth Campus

Not all of the University’s federal research funding has gone to the medical school. Last spring, the University received its largest-ever award to the Danforth Campus, a $20 million grant to study light energy. The award was not a part of the government’s stimulus funding but came through the Department of Energy.

The $20 million is going toward the establishment of a Photosynthetic Antenna Research Center (PARC) on campus, in which scientists will study the harnessing of energy from light. Robert Blankenship, a professor in the biology and chemistry departments, is heading the project. He said the study will focus on identifying the principles that govern natural photosynthetic antenna systems, such as the ones bacteria use to create energy, as a basis for designing solar-powered energy systems.

“We start with the purely natural antennas, that we’ve found in organisms. Then we go to the bio-hybrids, half natural, half synthetic. Then finally, we move on to the purely synthetic systems, things you might design for an artificial complex,” Blankenship said. “But they’re all designed to address the same issue of light collection.”

Blankenship said he learned that the project had received funding when President Obama announced the grant at the National Academy of Sciences last April.

“It was sort of like, your life has just changed,” Blankenship said of hearing that his project had just been given $20 million.

He said research projects like his are getting funded in higher numbers with money from the stimulus. But he reiterated Weinstock’s message that this does not mean science research has a stable future.

“Science has struggled for years to keep the enterprise going, so I think the Recovery Act funding was welcome in that sense,” Blankenship said. “The thing is the Recovery Act money is kind of a one-time shot.”