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Federal grants fuel science in CNY

Researchers fear commitment to research falling off

Sunday, February 20, 2005


By Rebecca James Staff writer

Cutting-edge research is expensive, and that's a major reason it's likely to be the subject of debate in the upcoming federal budget battle.

The National Science Foundation has an annual budget of $5.5 billion this year, and is sending $712 million to Central New York colleges and universities to do research. But some researchers fear the NSF budget, along with the national commitment to research, is falling behind.

"We're spending more and more on wars," said Karin Limburg, a researcher at the State University College of Environmental Science and Forestry. "It's gutting our resources for science and engineering at a time when we are really starting to fall behind other countries."

President Bush's proposed budget for the 2006 fiscal year increases the NSF budget to $5.6 billion. Yet that's $2.9 billion short of the 2006 level envisioned in a House of Representatives authorization bill in 2002, before costs from the war in Iraq started to mount.

Central New York universities seem to get a windfall from the federal government to pay for NSF-funded research. In each grant, about half of the money goes not to the researcher but to the school, to help it pay for administration buildings, heat and other infrastructure costs.

But universities say they actually swallow part of the costs. And in the current political environment - with federal deficits and the war on terror - universities say they aren't pushing for any increase in rates.

Even though recent laws like the Patriot Act and homeland security needs require universities to take on more administrative duties, such as tracking toxins used in research, the universities know they can't count on the federal government to cover those costs.

"The way the guidelines are, it is more and more difficult to collect on our real costs," Cornell University Controller Joanne DeStefano said.

Each university negotiates a rate with the government to pay overhead. The rate, for facilities and administration costs, is typically about 50 percent. The facilities side of that can vary dramatically, but the administrative costs are capped at 26 percent.

However, college administrators point out that they often get less money than the negotiated rate. So while SUNY ESF has a 49.9 percent negotiated rate, for example, it only collects 17 percent of the total federal grant money to put toward overhead, said Donald Artz, assistant for sponsored programs at the school.

Meanwhile, the Council on Governmental Relations, an association of research institutions, estimates that new federal laws in the last five years have added $1.2 billion in administrative costs that universities must pay.

It is important that the federal government cover most of the cost of doing research - of things like paying administrators who oversee research programs and keeping labs upgraded, said SUNY ESF President Neil Murphy.

"Who should pay for that?" he asked. "Should the student pay for that as far as the student's tuition or should the entity contracting the research pay for that?"

Cornell, which is among the top 20 universities that get federal research funds, wouldn't need the depth and range of laboratories if it didn't do government research work, DeStefano said.

"There are tremendous costs to running those labs," she said. "The whole reason the government supports research is that down the road it helps the economy. There's a public, good reason to do the research."

The NSF is generally well regarded both in political and academic circles. It maintains a good reputation with Congress, and its peer review process generates far-ranging advances in fundamental science, said Jeffrey Stanton, a Syracuse University researcher.

"One of the things we do pretty well as a society in this country is innovate and invent," Stanton said. "The NSF is such a powerful and efficient way of making that happen."

Here are some Central New York examples: Chemical fingerprinting Anthony Ouellette, SUNY Oswego, $249,850 Title:

"Acquisition of Proteomics Equipment and a Mass Spectrometer for Establishment of a Proteomics/Mass Spectrometry Facility."

To get students fired up about science, teachers at the State University College at Oswego know their best weapons is right in their back yard: Lake Ontario.

New equipment funded by NSF and installed last month at the college will let students better analyze samples from the lake, among other projects.

Anthony Ouellette, an assistant professor of biology, taught a class for seniors in 2003 that looked at the molecular biology of the lake and found student interest high because they wanted hands-on experience and "because they were investigating Lake Ontario, with which many of the students have a connection."

But, before the new equipment came along, much of the lab equipment at the college was almost 30 years old.

Mass spectrometry is a tool to measure the masses of a wide variety of molecules. It allows for chemical fingerprinting that can identify microorganisms and microbes.

The new center at the college means that the chemistry and biology departments, which teamed up on the project, are significantly modernized and have a new hub for sample preparation and analysis, Ouellette said.

Six faculty members and almost 200 undergraduates a year, including freshman biology students, will use the facility.

Research projects that will be pursued with the new equipment include looking in lake water for hazardous toxins and coming up with a simple test that would show the presence of a date-rape drug in drinks. Life on the river Karin Limburg, SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, $600,000 Title:

"Watersheds and Fisheries as Foci of Human Impacts and Ecological Responses: A Research and Teaching Agenda."

For scientists looking at how civilization and nature interact with a flowing stream, Onondaga Creek is a gold mine.

"We have this little watershed and some of it is fairly undisturbed and elsewhere it's one of the most abused urban streams I've ever seen," said Karin Limburg, an associate professor.

Limburg won a career award, a large, multi-year grant designed to boost a young professor's research. Her scope is comprehensive, looking at the array of ecological and economic effects on watersheds, from how land is developed to what fish species are present.

For many years, Limburg focused on the Hudson River, which also flows through a mix of urban, suburban and rural landscapes.

Her students help study Onondaga Creek, looking at how vegetation along its banks changes and the differences in the species of fish found in urban and agricultural settings.

The NSF grant allowed her to develop new courses on watershed ecology that have brought students to the banks of the Hudson, as well as to Onondaga Creek. A take on technology Jeffrey Stanton, Syracuse University, $299,389 Title:

"Culture Clash! The Adverse Effects of IT Occupational Subculture on Formative Work Experiences of IT Students" $162,000 Title:

"Behavioral Information Security: The Politics, Motivation, and Ethics of Information Security in Work Organizations."

Jeffrey Stanton, who describes himself as "not really a high-tech type guy," looks at what happens when people outside the techie culture try to navigate a world increasingly dependent on technology.

In the typical workplace, people disable anti-virus software when they are aggravated that it slows down their computers. They stick their coffee cups in their CD-ROM holders.

In another world, with its own culture, are those who handle the computers, the information technology staff, said Stanton, an associate professor in the School of Information Studies.

The organizational psychologist is looking at how that different culture may create problems recruiting women and minorities, as well as what could help newcomers enter the culture.

The technical staff, facing pressure to keep up with changes in the field and constant on-call requirements, see those they assist as outsiders, Stanton said.

"They have a strong sense of their identity," he said. "They feel users don't understand the demands that IT people are under."

Stanton's other NSF grant explores how employees help or undermine their companies' information security policies, such as by disabling software or choosing obvious passwords.

"One by one, these seem like minor issues, but collectively, they can have a huge influence on how well a company does," Stanton said. Termite towers Scott Turner, SUNY ESF, $240,597 Title:

"Emergent Homeostasis and Mound Morphogenesis in Colonies of the Termite Macrotermes Michaelseni."

Biologist Scott Turner couldn't miss the signs of termites on the African landscape when he was doing research on bird eggs in the 1980s.

The towers the termite colonies created out of sand were often more than twice as tall as he was. When he investigated how the towers acted as lungs for the colonies' underground nests, keeping the 1 million or more termites supplied with oxygen, he was hooked and switched the focus of his scholarship. "They were fascinating things, so I kept doing it," said Turner, an associate professor at SUNY ESF.

Turner's termite research has now spanned 15 years and is included in two books, including one on the structures that animals build. "There is a tendency to turn the physical environment into an external organ of sorts," Turner said. "The termite mounds are a pretty spectacular example of it."

The NSF grant is paying for work that looks at how the termites create networks of tunnels in the mounds to distribute gas and provide ventilation. The researchers drill into the mound, intentionally disturbing it, and then insert a large plastic pipe so they can monitor how the termites rebuild it.

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