November 29, 2010

Two-year stimulus act funds 480 Johns Hopkins projects

Two years ago, the federal government launched an ambitious plan to revitalize a sluggish economy by pumping hundreds of billions of dollars into industries and projects that would create jobs, stimulate spending and finance research that would benefit humankind.

The Johns Hopkins University was one of the beneficiaries of this plan, receiving before the program’s Sept. 30 end date $260 million in National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation research grants through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, also known as the federal stimulus act. In all, 480 proposals were funded.

Johns Hopkins’ creative and entrepreneurial faculty used this support to underwrite the cost of pioneering research in areas as diverse as muscle-wasting diseases, cancer, substance abuse and the origins of the universe, research that promises to reap important and lasting societal benefits for years to come.

“The fact that the federal government saw fit to entrust Johns Hopkins with more than $260 million in stimulus funds is a definite vote of confidence in the role of our university as an incubator for creativity and innovation,” said university President Ronald J. Daniels. “Our world-class faculty has put these stimulus funds to work on a wide range of research projects that are the hallmark of scientific and technical innovation and, in the process, are creating jobs, educating the next generation of researchers and providing solutions to some of humanity’s most urgent problems and issues.”

Through the stimulus act, the NIH and NSF received $12.4 billion to award as research grants between February 2009 and September 2010. (The federal agencies dispensing research grants had until Sept. 30 to obligate their funds.) During that time, Johns Hopkins scientists—including those at the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, Whiting School of Engineering, Bloomberg School of Public Health, School of Medicine, School of Nursing and Applied Physics Laboratory—submitted almost 1,500 proposals for stimulus-funded projects.

Lloyd Minor, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, said, “Our faculty members have responded to the opportunities created by the stimulus package with the energy, commitment and drive that is characteristic of Johns Hopkins.”

For example, oceanographer Thomas Haine, professor of Earth and planetary sciences in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, is using $736,000 in NSF-administered stimulus funds to develop what promises to be the biggest, most cutting-edge and detailed computer model of ocean currents ever made.

“There is an intricate, coupled relationship between the climate and the ocean,” Haine said. “The ocean circulation changes as the climate changes, but the climate changes as the ocean circulation changes, too. If we want to better understand climate change in the past, present and future, we need to better understand ocean circulation.”

Haine’s model, which will be run by an NSF-constructed supercomputer capable of doing a million billion calculations per second, will simulate currents in the Arctic, Antarctic and Atlantic oceans in hopes of shedding light on how small-scale turbulent eddies affect large currents, such as the powerful Gulf Stream.

Mounya Elhilali, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering in the Whiting School of Engineering and a researcher at the school’s Center for Speech and Language Processing, is using a $556,000, five-year National Science Foundation grant to untangle how the brain is able to focus on one conversation or sound when confronted by a mixture of conversations and noise, such as at a party. (This phenomenon is known as the “cocktail party effect.”) This research could open new frontiers for hearing technologies, including voice-automated telephony, robust surveillance of soundscapes, diagnostic systems, brain-machine robotics interfaces and hearing prostheses. “I’m grateful to NSF for providing funds to support my research at the beginning of my career,” Elhilali said.

In the medical arena, neuroscientist Jeffrey Rothstein of the School of Medicine is using a two-year $3.7 million stimulus grant from the NIH to expand on his long-standing research into the nerve- and muscle-wasting disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS. Using stem cells developed in a laboratory from skin cell samples taken from 20 ALS patients and five control subjects, Rothstein and his colleagues are studying the biology and chemistry involved in the development and progression of the disease and will test drugs to intervene in the process. When the two-year program is completed, the cells generated will be available nationwide to other researchers. “We believe that the ability to work with the two types of cells most relevant for ALS, developed directly from ALS patients, will give us a tremendous boost toward understanding more about this disease,” said Rothstein, a professor of neurology and neuroscience and director of the Robert Packard Center for ALS Research at Johns Hopkins. “Importantly, this will serve as a scientifically rich national resource for human ALS cell lines.”

Stimulus-funded research at Johns Hopkins also encompasses studies in the social sciences. Robert Moffitt, a Krieger-Eisenhower Professor in the School of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Economics, for instance, is using a one-year $48,339 grant from the NIH to continue to study whether the U.S. welfare system’s assistance based on marital status factors into single mothers’ decisions to stay single, cohabit or marry. “NIH is best-known for funding biomedical and life sciences research, but it also funds the behavioral sciences, particularly related to population issues, which is a very important piece of what the NIH does,” Moffitt said. “It would be difficult for us to go on to the next phase of our research without this stimulus grant. We’re very fortunate to get this funding.”

As of the end of October, Johns Hopkins reported 190 staff jobs created directly from stimulus funding (165 of those are filled, and 25 are still recruiting), not counting positions saved when other grants ran out, and not counting faculty and graduate student positions supported by ARRA grants. One hundred thirty-four of those jobs are in the School of Medicine, and 56 are elsewhere around the university.

Johns Hopkins has been the leading U.S. academic institution in total research and development spending for 31 years in a row, performing $1.85 billion in medical, science and engineering research in fiscal 2009.