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As society's needs shift, 'U' research responds

BY ESHWAR THIRUNAVUKKARASU
Daily Staff Reporter
Published September 28, 2009

Federal stimulus funding has awarded the University $61.1 million in research grants and, while most of it will be invested in the biomedical sciences, energy research is expected to see some of its largest gains as a potential energy crisis looms.

That shift to the energy sector with research funds echoes a historic trend at the University one in which primary research focuses sway with the breeze of national trends in research and technological needs.

About $19.5 million in additional stimulus funding from the U.S. Department of Energy has already been applied to the creation of the Energy Frontier Research Center —intended to develop new materials for solar cells. And in April, President Barack Obama called for the creation of 46 of these energy research centers across the nation with the goal of reducing American dependency on imported oil and greenhouse gas emissions.

University President Emeritus James Duderstadt, said federal support has often been key to the University’s large shifts in research.

Duderstadt, who is also a professor of science and engineering, said that increased research in defense during the 1950s coincided with the Cold War as did space research and astronaut training in the 1960s for the Apollo program.

“To do the kind of research we do, resources cannot come from within the University, and the state has never been particularly generous in supporting research,” Duderstadt said. “Most of our research funding comes from the federal government.”

In the last 20 to 30 years, biomedical research has seen the lion’s share of federal funding at the University, Duderstadt said. He added that it is, therefore, no coincidence that the National Science Foundation’s $6 billion budget is only about a fifth of the National Institutes of Health’s budget.

Dennis Assanis, director of the Michigan Memorial Phoenix Energy Institute, said the MMPEI’s origin in nuclear energy research after World War II illustrates, in part, the University’s tendency to follow society’s technological and scientific needs. The historical precedent in responding to contemporary research challenges has prepared the University for the recent push in energy studies, he said.

“In the past, we’ve launched strong initiatives in the biosciences and health sciences,” Assanis said. “This is nothing new for us to be able to respond to major societal changes and demands.”

Assanis said the University’s energy department is among the fastest growing research areas that receive federal funding. Moreover, he said the University’s rich energy portfolio has recently benefited from the increased discussion of sustainability in America.

“Energy is a very hot topic right now and it seems that we are able to put together a very strong response to the challenge,” Assanis said.

The Michigan Memorial Phoenix Energy Institute, which was founded in 1948 as a World War II memorial, was initially intended to explore peaceful uses of nuclear energy but has since broadened its scope to all energy research. Recently, the MMPEI has pursued education projects focused on improving the design of batteries, electric motors and electric vehicles.

“As the fate of Michigan and other states are emerging in these new industries, we’re going to need people with these new skills,” Assanis said. “Someone will need to educate and change the future workforce.”

Duderstadt said the growing importance of energy sustainability and its connection to global climate change may be the next significant shift in research focus. Faculty, he said, will follow the path of funding and will be reactive to the decisions made by the Obama administration as it collaborates with Congress.

“Over the next 10 to 20 years, as a nation and as a world, we’re going to have make some really tough decisions,” Duderstadt said. “Right now, we don’t have either the scientific information or the technological capability to make those decisions wisely.”


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