‘Good ideas’ get lift from stimulus
Story last updated: August 23, 2010
Dörte Döpfer’s research has very real consequences for public health.
“It’s a question of life and death,” says the UW–Madison veterinary epidemiologist and specialist in the food-borne killer Escherichia coli O157:H7. “Ten of those bacteria can kill a person, especially young children and the elderly.”
As of May 24, 2013
But the National Science Foundation’s $1 million grant to Döpfer and bacteriology professor Charles Kaspar is not just a novel dissection of a murderous pathogen. It’s a shot at righting an economy.
Döpfer’s grant is one piece of UW–Madison’s growing collection of research projects funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the federal government’s economic stimulus package.
The university has drawn more than $180 million in funding for over 400 research projects and programs spread across the range of academic disciplines, including public health, computer science, psychology, economics and engineering. Funding comes from agencies such as NSF, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Department of Energy and the National Endowment for the Arts.
The research planned by Döpfer and Kaspar was funded as part of a $1.4 million project including Texas A&M University epidemiologist and computer modeler Renata Ivanek-Miojevic. The collaborators will study the ecology of E. coli bacteria inside and outside hosts (such as cattle) and how the bacterium may evolve methods to survive in one environment that put it at a disadvantage in the other.
“What the stimulus package did is clear the queue. It’s like you were at the grocery store in a long line to check out, and then they opened half a dozen more check-out stations.”
UW–Madison zoology professor
The proposal scored points for being innovative, pulling together a team of scientists and steering business to off-campus companies to purchase the high-speed DNA replicating equipment planned for Döpfer’s lab.
“The reviewers recognized that we were young investigators,” Döpfer says. “They liked the idea of interdisciplinary study. And they were also interested, I believe, in the equipment included, that we’re stimulating the economy in that regard as well.”
It certainly couldn’t have hurt that Döpfer is now hiring.
“We are adding a grad student and a technician, depending on who we can get,” she says. “It’s two positions for three years, full-time. There’s another person with Chuck Kaspar and two more at Texas A&M.”
The E. coli study hit stimulus pay dirt on its first submission, but it’s not uncommon among UW–Madison researchers to see a once- or twice-rejected proposal resurrected by the influx of money.
“The way I look at it is, with the NSF, if you have a good idea you write a proposal and then you get in line,” says Stephen Carpenter, UW–Madison zoology professor. “It’s possible, but fairly unusual, to get them on the first try.”
Carpenter’s NSF grant — $519,443 for work intended to expand our understanding of how much biomass from dry land makes its way into the lake food chain and eventually into fish — had narrowly missed approval on its first submission.
“What the stimulus package did is clear the queue,” Carpenter says. “It’s like you were at the grocery store in a long line to check out, and then they opened half a dozen more check-out stations.”
Carpenter’s work will begin in earnest in the summer of 2010, bringing with it jobs for students and staff who may otherwise have been idle or working outside their area of expertise.
“It’s actually pretty inefficient to have half the country’s scientists looking for resources instead of doing science,” Carpenter says.
Though she was far from sitting idle, a stimulus-funded grant of $843,887 from the NIH came at just the right time for Regina Murphy, professor of chemical and biological engineering.
“I have work going right now, but I would have had to shut down without this funding,” says Murphy, who has been working with pharmacy professor Jeff Johnson to identify how a brain protein called transthyretin limits the deposit of harmful plaque in the brains of Alzheimer’s disease sufferers.
While the money kept Murphy’s research going, it bought her lab another two years of support, not the five years requested in her grant application. In fact, many of the stimulus grants come with a caveat — indicative of the oversight requirements and ephemeral nature of the money — like the one posted online with an abstract describing Murphy’s work: “This project is being supported with funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which may involve a reduction in the research aims and scope.”
That leaves Murphy’s lab in a familiar fix in two years, hunting for financial backing to keep working on a project that does not lend itself well to temporary shutdown.
“You have people working in the lab who know the project. You have animals going,” Murphy says. “It’s not something you can stop after two years.”
Not that Murphy, who also has an NSF grant to study malformed and diseased proteins, would complain about another two years and the ability to add a researcher to the team. There’s little or nothing to complain about from a researcher’s perspective, Carpenter says.
“I’m delighted. I have no idea what the economic impact will be, but it’s making a lot of good things happen, and it makes room for many more good ideas,” Carpenter says. “It would be a great time to send in a good idea.”