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Dollars From Heaven: NASA-funded research small but vital

Second Of A Series

Monday, February 17, 2003

By Byron Spice, Post-Gazette Science Editor

From a purely financial point of view, NASA plays a relatively minor role as a federal sponsor of academic research, contributing about 4 percent of all federal spending for university research and development.

 
 
Where the money goes

Top recipients of NASA funding for academic research and development, fiscal 2000:

1. Johns Hopkins University, $95.4 million

2. University of Colorado, $54.4 million

3. Stanford University, $48 million

4. University of Maryland, College Park, $34.9 million

5. California Institute of Technology, $28.8 million

6. University of Alabama, Huntsville, $22.1 million

7. University of California, Berkeley, $22 million

8. University of California, San Diego, $20.8 million

9. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, $20.8 million

10. University of Arizona, $17.7 million

13. Penn State University, $14.7 million

22. Carnegie Mellon University, $7.9 million

67. University of Pittsburgh, $2.7 million

72. Ohio State University, $2.5 million

73. Wheeling Jesuit University, $1.9 million


Source: American Association for the Advancement of Science

   
 

But from the point of view of Chuck Thorpe, director of the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, NASA's $308 million in sponsored research projects often have a special quality that attracts and inspires students and faculty.

"It's the whole idea of participating in exploration -- a 500-year-old theme" dating back to Columbus, Thorpe said.

Carnegie Mellon has had a chance to play a key role in that adventure.

NASA has been a major sponsor for some of the Robotics Institute's most challenging programs: Dante II, the robot that walked into an active volcano in Alaska; Nomad, the robot that successfully searched for meteorites in Antarctica; and Remote Agent, the artificial intelligence program that allowed the Deep Space I probe to set its own 120-million-mile course for an asteroid flyby.

About half of NASA's $15 billion annual budget goes toward human spaceflight programs, such as the shuttles and the International Space Station. The other half, devoted to science, aeronautics and exploration, is the source of funds for academic grants, noted Kathie Bailey-Mathae, federal relations officer for the Association of American Universities.

The agency's proposed 2004 budget "would be very, very good for science," she said, noting that space science was slated to receive a 17.4 percent increase and biological and physical research would get a 15.5 percent boost. Earth science, however, would take a cut, she said.

But many changes are now anticipated to that budget.

"Given what's happened with the space shuttle, I think things will continue to evolve over the next several months," Bailey-Mathae said.

Academic research programs sponsored by NASA cover a broad array of basic and applied science. But despite the relatively modest size of the research budget, it is the dominant federal sponsor in a handful of fields.

"NASA is highly important to astronomy," said Kevin Marvel, the American Astronomical Society's associate executive officer for governmental affairs. "The proportion of federal research dollars that NASA provides for astronomical research is roughly 70 percent."

That represents a dramatic shift since the early 1980s, when the National Science Foundation provided 60 percent of the federal funding for astronomy. The foundation, which sponsors ground-based astronomy, has kept its astronomy funding flat since then, while NASA's space-based observatories, such as the Hubble Space Telescope and the Chandra X-ray Observatory, have grown in number and prominence.

The Hubble alone accounts for 25 percent of all funding for individual investigators.

Certain fields virtually owe their existence to the space program.

"Planetary science was almost nonexistent in the first half of the 20th century," said Bruce Hapke, a planetary scientist at the University of Pittsburgh.

That changed with the space age.

"All of a sudden, when it looked like it might be possible for people to walk on the moon, geologists got interested," recalled Hapke, who was a principal investigator of Apollo lunar samples and continues to receive NASA funding to study remote sensing techniques. The space program has provided a wealth of data on the planets, most of its from unmanned spacecraft such as Viking, Galileo and Pioneer.

 
  Dollars from Heaven, Part I:

NASA spending hits wide area including Pa., W.Va. and Ohio

   
 

NASA also provides the bulk of federal support for aeronautical and astronautical engineering research. And the agency is a substantial sponsor of academic research in physical and environmental sciences.

Some of that funding naturally is funneled to projects that might directly benefit NASA, such as new materials for constructing spacecraft. But its promotion of space as a low-gravity laboratory also means that the agency ends up sponsoring a good deal of basic research, said Robert Sekerka, a Carnegie Mellon physicist who has headed NASA's Discipline Working Group for Materials Science since 1999.

Microgravity, Sekerka explained, provides a unique environment for studying many basic properties of materials. Fluids in particular behave much differently in space -- they don't flow -- and that allows scientists to study phenomenon such as diffusion of a compound through a fluid without having to compensate for the mixing that occurs by convection on earth.

Relatively few proposed experiments end up flying on the space shuttle, Sekerka said, but many receive NASA funding for preliminary studies on the ground.

Institutionally, the lion's share of NASA money -- 40 percent -- goes to the 10 top-ranked recipients of the agency's money, a list that includes many of the nation's dominant research universities, such as Johns Hopkins, Stanford, Caltech, MIT and the University of California-Berkeley. But thanks to location or special expertise, some smaller players rank high on the NASA list.

The University of Alabama at Huntsville, neighbor to NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, ranks only 137th among U.S. universities in federal support for science and engineering, according to the NSF, but it got $22.1 million in NASA money in 2000, ranking it 6th among all NASA recipients.

Likewise, the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, not much bigger than the Huntsville campus in total federal science and engineering receipts, ranked 12th on the NASA list.

"We get some money because we have some facilities at high latitudes that NASA wants," explained Roger Smith, director of the Geophysical Institute at the Fairbanks campus.

NASA funding, by contrast, represents a relatively small slice of the research pie at the University of Pittsburgh, said George Klinzing, Pitt's vice provost for research. The university, which ranked 67th overall in NASA funding, receives about $2.5 million a year from the agency, about 1 percent of its federal research budget.

"To those individual investigators, though, it's very important," Klinzing said. "Especially for astronomy and planetary science, there are not many other outlets."

At Penn State, by contrast, NASA funding represents about 7 percent of all federal research funding. The university has 172 active NASA awards, which cut across a broad array of disciplines, such as materials science, biology, environmental sciences, geosciences and applied research.

Penn State's NASA funding has increased significantly in recent years, from $10.4 million in 1999, when it represented 5 percent of the university's $201 million federal research budget, to $20 million last year, when the federal research budget totaled $284 million.

Eva Pell, vice president for research, said much of that increase no doubt was due to Swift, a satellite for studying gamma ray bursts for which Penn State is building two major instruments.

In Pennsylvania, Carnegie Mellon ranks second to Penn State in NASA funding. According to the foundation's profile of Carnegie Mellon, NASA accounted for more than 8 percent of the university's $95.9 million federal research budget in 2000. The Robotics Institute was a leading recipient.

On the other end of the spectrum, Wheeling Jesuit University, a liberal arts institution not noted as a major research center, ranks 87th in NASA funding. That's largely thanks to several facilities, principally the National Technology Transfer Center and the Center for Education Technology, that it operates under contract to NASA.

Most of that money goes to operating those centers, with the university receiving only indirect funding from NASA, said Joseph Allen, president of the technology transfer center. That doesn't necessarily translate into academic research, but it does provide educational benefits.

"We get a lot of international visitors and policymakers who would not typically be passing through at a classic liberal arts college," Allen said.

Tomorrow: NASA's corporate connection


Byron Spice can be reached at bspice@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1578.

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