R&D on Uncle Sam's dime

Universities benefit from a rise in U.S. spending on security as private-sector financing slows

By Bob Keefe
Austin-American Statesman
Monday, July 28, 2003

Steve Kornguth began his academic career as an ambitious young scientist searching for a cure for brain cancer at the University of Wisconsin.

Today, he is director of something called the Biological and Chemical Countermeasures Program at the University of Texas Institute for Advanced Technology.

Kornguth made the shift from neurological research to discovering ways to detect and defeat biological and chemical attacks about eight years ago. His timing couldn't have been much better.

In university laboratories across the country, such things as declining private funding and changing national priorities are driving a fundamental shift in research and development.

Just a few years ago, the most-talked-about research coming out of the nation's halls of higher education were projects geared toward commercial applications -- such as figuring out ways to make the Internet work better or creating new medical devices such as implantable insulin monitors.

Research and innovation in those areas are still occurring. But as with so much else in the country these days, the hottest thing going when it comes to university research is homeland defense.

"Clearly the concerns (of national security) have had a major effect on our program and everybody else's in the country," Kornguth said.

Federal funding for Kornguth's program hit almost $5 million this year -- nearly three times what it was just two years ago. Researchers connected with his program are working on projects ranging from anthrax-detection sensors to computer networks that can compare data on disease outbreaks in different parts of the country to quickly determine whether the nation is under biological attack.

Seeing plenty of potential federal research funding, Texas A&M University last year started the school's Integrative Center for Homeland Security. The goal was to bring a wide range of different programs under one umbrella organization to share ideas -- creating something of a one-stop shopping center for homeland security research along the way.

"When we looked at what we had on campus . . . we found our faculty members were immersed in all kinds of research" pertaining to homeland security, said Richard Ewing, the school's vice president for research.

The Texas Veterinary Medical Diagnostic Lab, part of A&M's center, recently got a $2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture -- not for research, but to retrofit and expand its labs. Why? Because the USDA wants to equip the lab and four others around the country to quickly identify potential biological attacks by terrorists on livestock and wildlife.

"There's probably a dozen diseases in the world that are available to terrorists that can create economic devastation if used on animal agriculture in this country," said Lelve Gayle, executive director of the lab.

"It's amazing how far the economic ripples could go when you think about shutting down slaughter plants, trucking companies, feed lots -- not to mention the environmental problems you'd have if you have to kill a million head of (infected) 1,000-pound steers."

It's not such a long way from the Pentagon to a university lab, said Juan Sanchez, vice president of research at the University of Texas

"The core research is the same," he said. "But what I see happening is that the faculty is realigning their activities to match the sources of federal funding."

At universities in Texas and across the country, computer research that once was directed only at making corporate networks more secure, for instance, now focuses on nationwide or worldwide cyberattacks by terrorists. Biotech research directed toward identifying diseases is now being expanded to identify potential biological weapons. Work in areas such as wireless networks and sensors is now being directed toward creating alarms for chemical attacks.

And it's just beginning. Along with current research funding, future additional spending by the Department of Defense and the new Department of Homeland Security is poised to spur a resurgence in security-related research the likes of which hasn't been seen since early days of the Cold War.

"We're just seeing the tip of the iceberg," Sanchez said.

Increased spending

At most big universities, the single-biggest source of research money comes from the federal government. But since 2001, government spending for university research and development projects related to defense, health and homeland security has risen dramatically.

Department of Defense spending on university research rose by 27 percent in the past two years, according to figures from the National Science Foundation. Spending by the Department of Health and Human Services soared 31 percent.

By contrast, spending for research by NASA, which historically funded some of the nation's biggest and most innovative research projects, rose 12 percent during the same period. Research funding from the Department of Agriculture, meanwhile, rose only 3 percent.

The increased federal funding couldn't have come at a better time at many university research labs. While federal funding was rising, private funding from companies and individuals -- often for the sorts of research that have specific commercial or health applications -- was declining.

At UT, for instance, grants for research and development from industry dropped by nearly 14 percent last year to about $26 million. But thanks to a 12 percent increase in federal research funding last year, the total amount of money spent on research at UT continued to rise.

Nationwide, other schools are seeing similar declines in private and corporate donations that isn't expected to subside for some time.

"My personal assessment is that it's going to stay in place as long as there are continued pressures on companies for profitability," said Barrett Carson, vice president of development at Georgia Tech University, where grants for research and other purposes have slid from $30 million in 1999 to about $22 million last year.

Meanwhile, endowments -- essentially colleges' saving accounts -- are shrinking, too. Last year the value of college endowments, which fund everything from pure research to scholarships and professorial chairs, declined by 6 percent, according to the National Association of College and University Business Officers.

That followed a 4 percent drop in 2001, marking the first time endowments declined in consecutive years since the group started tracking them in 1971. Much of the decline in both years was because of the falling value of donated stock.

As a result, college professors and researchers must look for research money where it's available -- the federal government.

Two growing areas at UT are chemistry and medicine. The Department of Defense spent $3.1 million on chemistry research last year, up from just $136,000 in 2000, UT records show. Spending on medical research by the Department of Health and Human Services nearly doubled from $5.2 million in 2000 to $9.1 million last year.

The shift in funding "is going to affect proposal writing more than anything else," said Michael Levi, science and technology fellow at the Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington, D.C. "Academics, just like anybody, understand it's all about sales.

"A few years ago, you'd tell everybody you were doing biotech or nanotech research, and they'd give you a million dollars. Today, you tell them you're doing homeland security, and they give you money."

That doesn't necessarily mean university researchers are refocusing on projects they don't know anything about just to keep the research dollars flowing. Tweaking research work to make it applicable to the whims of government or corporate America is something many academics are used to.

"A chemist will always be a chemist, and an electrical engineer will always be an electrical engineer," said Charles Liotta, vice provost for research at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. "But how they apply their disciplines depends upon the needs of the time."

The private sector

Identifying biological and cyberattacks and thwarting cattle kill-off is important, of course. But could the increased emphasis on defense and homeland security research stymie private-sector innovation?

In recent years, research at American universities has led to inventions ranging from the Web browser to heart catheters. Tech hubs such as Silicon Valley and Boston have roots that extend deep into schools such as Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Research at places such as Georgia Tech and UT have spawned countless new companies.

Researchers say the focus on homeland defense projects -- even if sometimes under the shroud of government secrecy -- doesn't necessarily mean commercial innovation will suffer.

After all, they point out, some of the biggest breakthroughs in technology came out of Department of Defense-funded university research.

"I think there are still going to be technologies with dual uses," said UT's Sanchez. "Some of the technologies used for detection of bio agents, for example, will have general applications in medicine and diagnostics."

It will just be tougher to commercialize new technologies borne of homeland security projects because of government rules and secrecy, the Brookings Institution's Levi said.

"But I don't think you're going to see a huge tilt away from the Silicon Valley-type (innovation). "That sort of thing is going to continue. It's just on top of it, there's going to be even more money flowing," into university research, he said.