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ASU exceeds $300 million in research expenditures

By

Skip Derra

Arizona State University has topped $300 million in research expenditures for the first time in its school history. With a total of $307 million in research expenditures for FY2009 (which ended June 30), a growth of nearly 9 percent compared to FY08, ASU has made a dramatic climb in the ranks of top research universities.

ASU’s $307 million total research dollars for FY09 comes from a variety of sources. It includes funds received from the federal government, industry, private sources, state funds (including Technology & Research Initiative Funds from state sales tax revenue) and local government, funds from the ASU Foundation specifically for research projects and funds from foreign sources.

This year’s total includes funds for non-science and engineering research. Next year, the National Science Foundation will begin counting non-science and engineering research funds for its official reports on university research expenditures.

R.F. “Rick” Shangraw Jr., ASU’s vice president for research and economic affairs, said that including non-science and engineering research in its total provides a fuller, more accurate picture of the research enterprise at ASU.

“We support the National Science Foundation’s decision to include all research related expenditures regardless of discipline,” Shangraw said. “ASU has strong programs in the humanities, social sciences and education research that should be represented in our research reporting and that of other institutions.”

“We are growing because we have differentiated our research and we have excelled at transdisciplinary projects that tackle some of the toughest challenges facing our nation,” Shangraw explained. “These and many other research projects are driven by the critical needs of society and aim to use the transformative power of research to make substantive changes to fill those needs.”

Sethuraman “Panch” Panchanathan, ASU’s deputy vice president for research said ASU’s rapid climb in research ranks is the result of tremendous efforts put forth by faculty in a highly competitive environment, the hiring of top researchers in key areas, and strategic investments in several new initiatives using resources such as the Technology & Research Initiative Funds (TRIF).

Examples include the Biodesign Institute, which is focused on advancing biosciences, life sciences and health related research to provide a better quality of life; the Flexible Display Center, a U.S. government, industry, university collaboration to conceptualize, design and develop flexible displays that integrate seamlessly into everyday applications resulting in a significant economic impact; the Global Institute of Sustainability, which is focused on solving some of the greatest challenges faced by society in the areas of energy and climate change; and a number of research projects and programs in social sciences and humanities that benefit society.

“ASU built the world class Biodesign Institute by drawing upon the multifaceted expertise at the university and augmented that with new programs and projects that attracted top researchers and leaders from around the world,” said Panchanathan. “The investments in infrastructure and people are already paying rich dividends from the perspectives of intellectual, societal and economic impact.”

Now, Biodesign is a $70 million a year institute that works on improving health care outcomes for all people through a focus on personalized medicine, outpacing the global threat of infectious diseases and improving our environment through renewable energy and bioremediation, Panchanathan said.

Another example is the Flexible Display Center (FDC) at ASU. It was established by the U.S. Army in February 2004 in order to revolutionize information displays. FDC researchers work side by side with industry and government scientists to usher in a new era of powerful real-time information sharing through a new generation of innovative displays that are flexible, lightweight, low power and rugged. It is expected that the advances at FDC will attract whole new industries in this rapidly growing field.

The U. S. Army renewed the FDC’s contract in February 2009 for an additional five years at $50 million.

Sustainable world

ASU’s expertise in environmental science grew over 30 years, but a significant contribution by Julie Ann Wrigley in 2004 led to the creation of the Global Institute of Sustainability (GIOS) and eventually the formation of the School of Sustainability in 2007. GIOS today conducts research, education and problem solving related to sustainability, with a special focus on urban environments. Most of all, it involves students, tomorrow’s leaders, in its work and scientific advances.

Patricia Gober, director of ASU’s Decision Center for a Desert City, which studies water management and climate adaptation in Phoenix, also teaches an interdisciplinary class in water sustainability.

“Students come to my class with backgrounds in engineering, science, social science, law, journalism, business and education,” Gober said. “The blending of their perspectives breaks down the old boundaries that separated teaching, research and service in the university and creates settings in which students work on real-world problems in search of solutions to sustainability challenges.”

Today, GIOS is a cross-disciplinary research institute that includes the participation of more than 400 faculty working to solve important issues in climate adaptation, renewable energy and urban sustainability, tackling some of today’s primary problems. GIOS initiates and nurtures work on issues of sustainability across many departments on the four campuses of ASU, and collaborates with other academic institutions, governments, businesses and industries, and community groups locally, nationally and globally.

ASU has several significant research efforts in the humanities and social sciences.

Curtis Marean, a professor in ASU’s School of Human Evolution and Social Change and associate director of the Institute of Human Origins, has done groundbreaking anthropological work pushing back by several thousands of years the dates of evidence of the earliest ‘human’ experiences, such as the expansion of diet to include shellfish and other marine resources, the use of pigment in symbolic behavior and the use of fire to help craft tools from stone. Marean and his students work on a coastal area of the Cape of South Africa called Pinnacle Point. The research is funded by a $2.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

This year, ASU received four grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, three of which were directly related to ASU’s Institute for Humanities Research. Daniel Shilling, a researcher, and Joan McGregor, a professor in the School of History, Philosophy and Religious Studies, examined the role of literature, philosophy and history in developing the core principles and values that will directly influence today’s sustainability efforts. Another grant aided in the development of a research, teaching and outreach program on the cultural and environmental history of the Sky Islands borderlands region of Arizona, New Mexico, Sonora and Chihuahua, Mexico. The fourth project, Becoming Arizona, is the development of an online e-cyclopedia of Arizona history, culture, politics, economics and other topics as a tribute to Arizona’s centennial in 2012.

An interdisciplinary team, led by Steven Corman, a professor in the Hugh Downs School of Communication and director of ASU’s Consortium for Strategic Communication, has developed a text-analysis tool used to decode messages containing potential security threats to the U.S. Funded by the Office of Naval Research, the technology provides tools, methods and training programs to assess threats posed by terrorist narratives among contested populations.

Devens Gust, an ASU professor of chemistry and biochemistry and a leading researcher in its efforts in solar energy conversion, said the growth of ASU’s research relates to its ability to set up projects that cut across traditional disciplines.

“When I came to ASU, we had only a few research efforts that had high international visibility,” Gust said. “Today, our major research strengths span an impressive diversity of subjects. Much of this growth has been in interdisciplinary research areas, which is important because the solution of many of the intellectually fascinating and socially important research problems facing humanity today require expertise from a whole range of disciplines.”

“All of these projects are examples of how ASU is pushing knowledge in several new and exciting directions,” Shangraw said. “Our emphasis on interdisciplinary research, our ability to organize and engage larger projects and our ability to win larger, multi-year awards will allow ASU to play an increasingly formidable role in meeting the grand challenges of science and society.”

Research grants are restricted to use for specific research projects and cannot be used to fund general university expenses. However, they do add a significant amount of money to the state economy.

Arizona State University has been building momentum in research expenditures in recent years. For example, in 2007 ASU ranked 19th in expenditures for universities that do not have a medical school. In 2009, ASU’s expenditures exceeded $307 million.