Federal cuts put CMU research in jeopardy

Debra Erdley
| Saturday, April 6, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Carnegie Mellon University research helped steer two generations of rovers across the Martian landscape.

University researchers are perfecting technology to help drone aircraft navigate on their own, and they're developing robots whose vision and sense of touch mimic human senses.

But faced with the prospect of dwindling federal research money and a changing of the guard in school leadership, the region's premier private research university stands at a crossroads.

David Dzombak, Carnegie Mellon's interim vice provost of sponsored research, acknowledged that the future of federal research is a concern for the university, where the work constitutes about one-third of its $1-billion-a-year operation.

“Research revenue at Carnegie Mellon and research activity is a very big part of what we do. It's a very big part of the budget, and the federal funding for that is the largest fraction of it. The health of (federal research and development funding) is very important to us,” Dzombak said.

A White House announcement last week that the first of three national cyber security workshops will be in May at Carnegie Mellon seemed to underscore the university's standing as a leading center for future research.

However, a 2015 deadline looms for renewal of the university's five-year federal contract to operate the Software Engineering Institute. The deaths of institute champions Rep. John Murtha and Sen. Arlen Specter concern some about other top-tier computer science and engineering schools lining up for a piece of the pie.

A spokesman for Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Lehigh Valley, said he supports competitive funding for government-sponsored research and predicts that “in an era of competitive grants, Carnegie Mellon University can and will continue to excel.” He did not address the SEI contract.

Carnegie Mellon is counting on incoming President Subra Suresh, who recently stepped down as director of the National Science Foundation, for leadership as it tackles changing dynamics in Washington, Dzombak said.

Carnegie Mellon reported $766 million in National Science Foundation research between 2002 and 2012.

“There's an understanding of the research landscape not only from (Suresh's) time at the National Science Foundation, but he also was very involved in federal funding at MIT as dean (of the school of engineering). He's best positioned to help us figure out our strategy for funding,” Dzombak said.

Suresh declined to be interviewed before he starts his job on July 1, but has made note of the university's research successes.

“The extraordinary ability of the CMU faculty and students in bringing together cutting-edge research and education across multiple disciplines positions CMU uniquely to address national and global challenges,” he said when trustees announced his appointment in February.

University records show Carnegie Mellon conducted more than $2.9 billion in federal research and contract work between 2002 and 2012 — the bulk of it for the Department of Defense and the National Science Foundation.

Even so, Carnegie Mellon's share of research money from those agencies is dwarfed by the grants awarded to schools such as Penn State University, Johns Hopkins and the University of Pittsburgh.

Automatic spending reductions to cut the federal deficit will slash Defense Department research alone by 9.4 percent. That could prove a double whammy to Carnegie Mellon, which reported $71.2 million in research for the department last year and $120 million largely consisting of Pentagon payments for the Software Engineering Institute.

CMU scored a major coup in 1984 when Murtha helped the university secure its first five-year federal contract to create the institute. It is among few areas at CMU that have experienced major funding gains. University records show spending at the institute, which does work for the federal government and private industry, went from $44.8 million in 2003 to $120.6 million last year.

The institute in Oakland, which has branches in Arlington, Va.; El Segundo, Calif.; and Frankfurt, Germany, employs more than 500 people and focuses on research, including cyber security and smart grid enhancements.

Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, whose district encompasses CMU's Oakland base, said lasting reductions in federal research dollars could have far-reaching impacts as international competitors line up to snare scientists left without funding for their work.

“The Canadians would love to have what we have at Carnegie Mellon and Pitt and Penn State,” Doyle said. “We would be foolish to let it go.”

Terry Hartle, vice president of the American Council on Education, a group that represents the presidents of more than 1,800 U.S. colleges and universities, said CMU is not alone in its concerns about the federal commitment to research.

“All we can say at this point is that universities that receive federal R&D support will face a significant but still unknowable impact as a result of federal sequestration. …Very few of the leading R&D agencies have outlined how they will make the cuts.

“The National Science Foundation said it will make roughly 1,000 fewer grants in the coming year. …We don't know if some agencies will decide to stop funding existing grants. Not funding new awards is a possibility. Some combination is a possibility,” Hartle said.

CMU scientists and engineers continue to push forward in labs scattered across Pittsburgh.

“The R&D we do develops new knowledge. New technologies and spinoffs come from that, but one of the things we develop that is often overlooked is people,” Dzombak said. “We're producing highly trained people whose knowledge benefits society.”

Debra Erdley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7996 or derdley@tribweb.com.

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