Published online 26 February 2009 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2009.126

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Science grants rise with stimulus spending

Extra money has researchers scrambling to join the queue.

The odds are getting better for Alberto Bolatto, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland in College Park. Eager to use radio telescopes to study star formation in galaxies, he has a grant application pending with the US National Science Foundation (NSF) that asks for $430,000 over four years. It would provide salary and travel support for him, and would allow him to employ his first graduate student at Maryland.

The NSF hasn't made a decision on his application yet, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing. Last year, only 23% of grant applications to the foundation for astronomy succeeded. Now Bolatto's chances are rising with the passage of the landmark $787-billion stimulus bill, because some of those billions are to flood into the NSF — and raise grant acceptance rates. "Anything that improves the odds is good news," he says.

Barack Obama's proposed budget calls for increases in various science agencies.Associated Press

The stimulus bill was conceived as a way to jumpstart the economy with 'shovel-ready' infrastructure and construction projects. At agencies such as the NSF and the Department of Energy's (DoE) office of science, however, much of the money will be spent on grants, and details are emerging this week of how those grants will be awarded.

The NSF has received a one-time infusion of $3 billion to supplement its $6.1-billion annual budget, and the DoE office of science has received $1.6 billion on top of its $4-billion budget. Both agencies, targeted for a long-term doubling of basic research under the 2007 America COMPETES Act, are also set for boosts in a spending bill for fiscal year 2009 which Congress will hash out in the coming days. The current bill calls for $6.5 billion for the NSF and $4.8 billion for the DoE office of science. A 2010 proposed budget outline from US President Barack Obama, released on Thursday, would further boost the NSF to $7 billion, but does not yet specify a budget for the DoE office of science, saying only that it will receive "substantially increased support". Details are similarly sketchy regarding the National Institutes of Health, where the only specifics mentioned are "over $6 billion for cancer research".

More of the same at NSF

At the NSF, the stimulus bill makes $2.5 billion available for external research grants, and the agency intends to spend it on new 'standard' grants from the large pool of pending applications, as well as through new solicitations. Standard grants can be awarded for multiple years (the average is three) and the money can be awarded entirely up front.

NSF director Arden Bement declined to discuss details but says that new stimulus grants would begin soon. "It'll be days, not weeks," he says.

Bement discussed the foundation's intentions for spending the stimulus money with its oversight board on Monday and Tuesday, and it appears that the disbursement process will be, basically, business as usual. "Nothing will be special in the way it's handled — except the recording and accounting will be additional," says board consultant Barry Barish. Recently rejected applications may also be reconsidered retroactively. "The assumption is, you increase the acceptance rate without reducing the quality," he says. In 2007, the overall grant success rate was 26% of 44,577 grant applications — a decline from 2000, when the rate stood at 33%. The number of highly rated proposals has remained steady over that period, however.

Board chairman Steven Beering says that the NSF intends to keep the average grant size the same. By not adding money to existing grants, tracking stimulus money — a key requirement of the bill — will be made easier. The average grant size in 2007 was $146,270, so if all $2.5 billion were spent at this average rate, some 17,000 new grants would be available.

Of the NSF's stimulus money, Congress directed $400 million to be spent on facilities. Mark Coles, deputy director for large facility projects at NSF, says that few new such projects are ready to receive significant sums. He says three are most likely to receive funding: the Alaska Region Research Vessel, a ship that could carry two dozen scientists; the Ocean Observatories Initiative, a network of linked ocean buoys; and the Advanced Technology Solar Telescope, which would look at the Sun's corona from atop the Hawaiian island of Maui. Another option being considered is adding antennae back to the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) under construction in Chile, which had been downscaled from 64 antennae to 50.

Energy department on site

Unlike the NSF, the DoE office of science has many more facilities under construction, where an infusion of money could help speed things up: 20 projects with an estimated construction cost of $2.3 billion. Acting office of science director Patricia Dehmer told an advisory committee of high-energy physicists on Tuesday that roughly half the money would be spent on the construction of projects such as these, as well as the operations and infrastructure at existing facilities. "It's one shot, it's shovel-ready, it accelerates construction and it relieves mortgages," she says.

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One of the most expensive projects under way is the $791-million National Synchrotron Light Source II at Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York. The American Physical Society estimates that $303 million of stimulus money could be spent by the end of fiscal year 2011 to accelerate construction.

The remainder of the office of science's stimulus money, Dehmer says, would be spent on grants and computing infrastructure, as well as fellowships and support for graduate students. 

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  • #59792

    Let's just be prepared for a carbon tax in or order to offset spending.
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  • #60708

    I did a quick read of ARRA for California, reading the spending reports that cal produced on projects. State level highways did well, allocating funds. But local roads were late or failed to get bids out on half the projects. A third of ARRA funds went to light rail. Local transit authorities were not required to report directly to Caltrans, our state authority, and the sate government had no direct info on that. Highways constitute about 1% of the total road system!

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