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Surge of federal research grant money fuels large-scale, high-cost projects in UCLA sciences

By Srbui Karapetian

Sept. 20, 2009 3:20 p.m.

It was in August of last year that computer science professor Jason Cong began drafting a pre-proposal to the National Science Foundation in hopes of receiving funds for a new research project ““ the development of flexible, customizable computers that he said could revolutionize the health care industry.

He had already submitted the proposal the previous year, but despite receiving favorable reviews during the highly competitive selection process, the proposal had not made the cut.

It was only after submitting his research proposal for a second time ““ and visiting Washington D.C. to present his case alongside Vice Chancellor of Research Roberto Peccei ““ that UCLA made the selectors’ short list of seven university finalists to receive federal funding for research projects.

After a few more months of anticipation, Cong learned in August that the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science was awarded a $10 million grant for research in the new UCLA Center for Domain-Specific Computing, said Wileen Kromhout, director of media relations and marketing at the engineering school.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which was passed in February, created a surge of funding for new faculty research through various organizations, such as the National Institute of Health and the National Science Foundation, Peccei said.

UCLA scientists received a total of $966.3 million in grants and awards during the 2008-09 academic year, approximately $50 million greater than the federal funds awarded in 2007-08 academic cycle, Peccei said.

Between April and June, campus faculty and researchers scrambled to submit grant proposals, generating 2,400 proposals, a little over 1,300 of which were for stimulus funds through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, according to the UCLA research portal Web site.

So far, 163 awards have been granted through the Recovery Act, totaling approximately $66,000,000 in stimulus funds, which represents just a minor portion of the upwards of $661,000,000 in grant proposals made through the Recovery Act. More awards will come within the next three to four months, Peccei said. He added that typically, one third of all proposals made received funding.

The proposal submission process consists of drafting a pre-proposal, followed by a series of presentations for selector boards, and a final grant proposal. The process remains very competitive, and even though faculty submit terrific proposals, at times there is just not enough money to fund these proposals, Peccei said.

However, the recovery money has been able to fill these gaps and has allowed for a larger number of proposals to be funded than might have been otherwise, he added.

The National Science Foundation, for instance, typically funds four projects, said Diana Huffaker, associate professor of electrical engineering.

With additional financial support from the recovery act, the foundation was able to fund three more projects for the 2009-10 fiscal year.

Huffaker’s own two-year efforts to receive the National Science Foundation’s Integrative Graduate Education Research Traineeship award finally proved successful partially because her proposal’s premise ““ a focus on both clean energy science and clean energy policy ““ was relevant to the Economic Recovery Act’s goals for the future, Huffaker said. The engineering department will use the $3 million in stimulus funds to create a training program for 33 Ph.D. candidates who will integrate the science of clean technology with business, policy and management.

This combination will allow students to leave the five-year program fully prepared to take on leadership roles in environmental industry in the Los Angeles area, Huffaker said.

Meanwhile, Cong, who heads the Center for Domain-Specific Computing, will use the $10 million granted to the engineering school for research geared toward building energy-efficient, customizable computers.

Unlike general-purpose computers, these computers can perform specific functions, such as medical imaging, X-ray and CT scanning, and hemodynamic modeling, which will improve health care quality and costs in the long run, Cong said.

Much of the funding that UCLA researchers receive comes from the National Science Foundation, and the National Institute of Health, as well as from the U.S. Department of Defense and the Department of Energy, Peccei said.

While the National Institute of Health provides the greatest amount of grant money for faculty researchers, especially in UCLA’s biomedical research sector, its distribution process occurs later on in the year because of the length of the reviewing process, Peccei said.

Along with the engineering school, the UCLA School of Dentistry also recently received federal stimulus money.

The National Institute of Health’s National Center for Research Resources awarded the school $5 million for the construction of the UCLA Yip Center for Oral/Head & Neck Oncology Research, said Sandra Shagat, director of communications at the dentistry school. Even before the construction of the center, approximately $30 million were awarded to the school throughout the past three years for research and training in oral cancer, Shagat added.

In the current economic climate, researchers said that they are grateful for the opportunity to receive federal financial backing to bring their innovative ideas to the laboratory table.

“Without such support, we would not be able to complete projects of such scale,” Cong said.

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Srbui Karapetian
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