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CMU, Pitt among beneficiaries of late chemist's historic bequest

| Thursday, July 25, 2013, 10:48 a.m.

Millions of private dollars are arriving at the perfect time for researchers at Pennsylvania universities seeking to replace waning federal support, experts said.

The Pittsburgh Foundation on Thursday announced the first set of grants from the largest gift in its 68-year history. Nearly $1.6 million from the estate of Charles E. Kaufman will go to Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Pittsburgh, Penn State, Drexel and Temple. Kaufman, a Pitt graduate and chemist who made much of his fortune after retirement, left the foundation $50 million upon his death in 2010. About $40 million will go to support “cutting edge” scientific research, the foundation said.

“Any one of these grants has the potential to significantly advance the frontiers of human knowledge,” said Grant Oliphant, president and CEO of the foundation.

Non-defense federal spending on research and development increased only slightly in the past decade — adjusted for inflation — to $65.1 billion in 2012 from $63.1 billion in 2002, according to the Association of American Universities.

“I would say these Kaufman Awards are coming at a timely point,” said Graham Hatfull, Eberly Family Professor of Biotechnology at Pitt and chair of the Kaufman Foundation's Scientific Advisory Board.

Veronica Hinman, Jonathan Minden, Bruce Alan Armitage and Danith H. Ly of CMU will receive $300,000 to explore why cells in some organisms regenerate a lost limb and others do not. Hinman said she wanted to do the project for many years but could not secure the funding.

“Now that we got this money, it will be full steam ahead,” she said.

The Kaufman Foundation established two categories for its awards. One provides $150,000 over two years for researchers who received their doctorate no more than seven years prior. Another rewards established researchers.

Barry Toiv, spokesman for the Association of American Universities in Washington, likes the focus on young researchers. He said the average age of principal investigators of grants from the National Institutes of Health has crept into the 40s.

“We don't know what we're missing when a lack of funding prevents us from getting the maximum benefit from those early and especially creative years,” he said.

When the Kaufman estate announced its gift and the formation of the Kaufman Foundation in January 2011, it said Kaufman had grand ideas for his wealth.

“The real transformation may happen 10, 20 or 30 years from now when one of these wins the Nobel Prize,” Oliphant said.

Bill Zlatos is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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