Feds stimulating research at Minnesota schoolsby Tim Post, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — Nothing excites a scientist like the prospect of starting new research or buying that high-tech equipment they've always wanted.
If ever there was a time for scientists to feel giddy, it's now. Federal stimulus money for research has started rolling into Minnesota colleges.
The $800 billion federal stimulus bill set aside $21.5 billion for scientific research.
So far, Minnesota universities, both public and private, have been awarded more than $125 million in grants to fund research.
David Murr, an associate professor of physics at Augsburg College, is one of the beneficiaries. Murr is studying how the upper layers of the atmosphere interact with the earth's magnetic field and the sun.
He monitors signals from satellites orbiting the earth, the same satellites GPS navigation systems in cars rely on.
"We can extract from the GPS signal how many electrons are in that layer and how electrically conducting it is," explained Murr. He hopes his research broadens the understanding of electrical currents in the atmosphere, which can play havoc with power grids and satellite transmissions.
Two National Science Foundation grants totaling $750,000 mean Murr can buy more receivers and antennas. He's planning on installing them above the Arctic Circle and in Antarctica.
Stimulus funding for research is also making its way to Minnesota State University at Mankato.
The college just received a $227,000 National Science Foundation grant.
Steven Losh, an associate professor of geology at MSU-Mankato, is excited to use the money to replace the college's 30-year-old X-ray diffractometer with a shiny new model.
Losh said a diffractometer can be used to determine the atomic make-up of just about anything by zapping it with X-rays.
"Then it measures the amount by which those X-rays are bent by interacting with atoms in the sample," he said. "You can obtain a three-dimensional image by a lot of numerical processing of the atomic arrangement within that sample."
Losh said the new diffractometer will be delivered in the spring. It will be used by professors and students in several different fields of study.
By far, the most stimulus money for research in the state has gone to the University of Minnesota. The U of M's Twin Cities, Morris and Duluth campuses have received 226 grants worth $122 million.
The biggest single grant is from the U.S. Department of Energy. Its worth $40 million, and the money will be used to complete construction of a $250-million laboratory in northern Minnesota set up to study neutrinos; particles scientists consider the fundamental building blocks of matter.
The $40-million grant will be used to pay construction workers building the underground lab, and dozens of students developing the equipment, said Marvin Marshak, a physics professor at the university.
More importantly, the stimulus grant helps the U lay ground work for future scientific discoveries, Marshak says.
"We're also contributing to infrastructure," Marshak said. "Not visible infrastructure like a road project, but the infrastructure of knowledge."
Economist Peter Morici doesn't dispute that infrastructure is being built. But the professor at the University of Maryland's Smith Business School doesn't think federal stimulus dollars should be used to fund college research across the country.
"If the purpose of the stimulus package was to get people back to work, then giving it to professors was not the answer," Morici said.
Minnesota professors on the receiving end of stimulus grants say funding research may not put as many people to work as, say, a road construction project. But University of Minnesota Mankato's Steven Losh said it's important to consider long term investments as stimulus too.
"Getting students to get their hands on instruments and analyzing materials and interpreting the data and using that trains them to think better as scientists," he said. "That's something that we really need in our society."
Losh said using stimulus money for research now, will help the country stay competitive economically in the future.
Some other research grants going to Minnesota schools include:
- Macalester College, St. Paul - $351,668: The college will use the grant to buy a variable pressure sample chamber scanning electron microscope. Researchers and students in the college's departments of geology, biology, physics and environmental studies will use the microscope. The college says students trained in modern microscopy research are better prepared for the technical job market.
- University of Minnesota, Twin Cities - $34,000,000: Several stimulus grants have been awarded to scientists, physicians, and research centers at the at the U of M's Academic Health Center. The funding will be used to hire staff, pay for travel and buy equipment. University of Minnesota officials say the funding will accelerate their research to advance science and improve health.
- St. Catherine University, St. Paul - $161,064: The school will use the award to acquire a suite of instrumentation for analysis of the nutrient content of soil, plant tissue, and water samples. Students and professors will use the equipment to research the relationship between plant-soil and community interactions in ecosystems.
- University of Minnesota, Duluth - $124,988: Researchers at UMD will use the grant to fund research into using carbon nanotubes embedded in concrete to monitor road stress. The carbon nanotubes are less than a millionth the size of a human hair, and could potentially be used to monitor traffic or detect concrete cracking and other mechanical stress.
- Morning Edition, 11/20/2009, 6:50 a.m.