The University Record, November 23, 1998

Research expenditures continue an upward trend

By Jane R. Elgass

The University’s research expenditures, experiencing another record year, are approaching the $500 million dollar mark. Fiscal year 1997–98 expenditures rose 7.2 percent over the prior year to $491,472, 206.

And while the numbers are important, because the dollars are necessary to support research and scholarly activities and provide some measure of quality, “the U-M is number one in research volume because its faculty derive strength, inspiration, ideas and assistance from one another,” Frederick C. Neidhardt told the Regents last week.

“Our University is a great place for scholars to work because they can interact with top-flight individuals outside their own discipline,” said Neidhardt, who is vice president for research. “One in every eight funded research proposals involves the collaboration of faculty members from different disciplines, and one-third of our research dollars are awarded to us for interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary research.”

Neidhardt added that another measure of quality that can be applied to U-M research programs is the fact that external support is acquired by faculty through national, peer-reviewed competition. “That $2 out of every $100 the federal government spends on basic non-military research come to Ann Arbor is an achievement of which we can all be proud,” he said.

Neidhardt said two factors explain the high volume of this type of activity in spite of an organizational structure that is planned to foster disciplinary strength:

• “Work at the intersections of disciplines is extraordinarily exciting and frequently leads to unpredictable outcomes,” he noted. “That’s why some of the most creative scholars are those who seek out collaborators from alien traditions.”

• “The problems that afflict the human condition are complex, defying solution by any one discipline. That’s why federal agencies and national foundations insist on multidisciplinary projects.”

Neidhardt highlighted two examples of collaborative projects for the Regents, one based in the sciences and the other in the humanities and sciences, that took place this past year.

Lab-on-a-chip

Geneticist David Burke and colleagues from the College of Engineering—Mark A. Burns (chemical engineering) and Carlos H. Mastrangelo (electrical engineering and computer science)—and their postdoctoral fellows and students recently reported on the development of a miniature laboratory for DNA analysis that was quickly dubbed “lab-on-a-chip.”

Several years ago, Burke had a bold idea for simplifying the process of the speeding up of DNA analysis under field conditions, bypassing reliance on elaborately equipped laboratories and specially trained technicians.

“He knew that he could never achieve such a technical advance himself, but had faith that the project was feasible,” Neidhardt explained. With support from his department and seed money from the Medical School and the Office of the Vice President for Research, Burke approached the College of Engineering, “which had both the specialized disciplines and the specialized facilities to address the challenge. In fact,” Neidhardt noted, “it was the existence of such technical expertise that had originally attracted Burke to the University.”

DNA analysis has a number of clinical applications in medicine, such as identification (parent-child, forensics, military, disasters), organ transplantation and bone marrow matching, bacterial and viral diagnosis and epidemic tracking, genetic predisposition to disease, and genetic-based drug or therapy interventions.

It also has uses outside medicine, including comparative genomics and other basic biological studies; crop and animal breeding for disease resistance and high yield; new crop development; and tracking and breeding of endangered species.

In the lab-on-a-chip, the functions of a complete DNA laboratory are performed on a silica chip that uses a minute quantity of sample, roughly one-tenth the amount of liquid that can bead up on the period at the end of a sentence.

This miniature laboratory operates with a minimum of expensive reagents on very tiny amounts of sample without human intervention, and can be operated as a completely contained, battery-operated, hand-held device. Thanks to an inexpensive production process, a single DNA lab-on-a-chip could eventually cost less than $10.

Seven Enigmas

While “lab-on-a-chip” demonstrates accomplishments that can result from collaborations among individuals in multiple disciplines bringing their expertise to bear on a well-defined project, “‘Seven Enigmas’ represents a more unusual collaboration,” Neidhardt told the Regents.

“This project, a work of seven dances, had its very nature defined by the creative interaction of disparate disciplines addressing the issue of how humans approach the enigmatic and become affected by it. It is a celebration of ‘some of the many possible responses [of humans] in the face of incomprehensible mysteries and unreachable knowledge,’” Neidhardt explained.

Neidhardt used a video from the September 1997 performance of “Seven Enigmas” at the Power Center for the Performing Arts to illustrate the creation of the artistic process using the varied talents of a dancer and choreographer (Peter Sparling); creative painter and set designer (Jim Cogswell); video artist and film-maker (Robert Anderson); space physics scientist (John Clarke); neurobiologist, morphometrician and mapper of the human brain (Fred Bookstein); keyboard synthesizer musician (Daniel Roumain); and other faculty, staff and graduate students.

Biological landmarks of the human brain, images of distant galaxies, gyrating morphs and striking sculptural forms combined with the dancers’ movements to convey glimpses of the process of inquiry,” Neidhardt noted.


Commenting on another record year in research expenditures, Frederick C. Neidhardt told the Regents last week that “the annual rate of expenditure has been climbing for many years. The increase in expenditure over 1996–97 is probably sufficient to assure our retention of the number one position in the nation.”

Of the U-M’s 1997–98 total research expenditure, $319,224,974—or 65 percent—came from federal agencies.

Major funding agencies included:

• Department of Health and Human Services, $186,960,136.

• National Science Foundation, $40,257,222.

• Department of Defense, $39,016,161.

• NASA, $12,851,044.

• Department of Energy, $11,075,735.

Research support from non-federal sources accounted for $108,561,239, or 22 percent of the U-M total, and included $34,250,521 from industry. U-M funds accounted for 13 percent of the University’s total research expenditures.

 


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