Research resurgence nets grant for Fresno State

Renewed national focus on research brings a $349,000 grant to Fresno State.

April 14, 2010 

In a Fresno State laboratory, biology professor Larry Riley and his students explore the stress levels of tilapia.

They know this: The fish don't seem to eat when they're stressed. And stressed-out tilapia won't quickly grow fat, healthy and ready for us to serve up for dinner.

Now, Riley and his students are working to unlock the science of hormones, appetite and tilapia with the help of a $349,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It's one example of money flowing to California State University, Fresno, and other universities partly because of a renewed national focus on research.

Many public universities are struggling with a drop in operational funding. Both the University of California and California State University managed roughly 20% state budget cuts by raising student fees, furloughing employees, slashing classes and making other cuts this year.

But one bright spot has been an uptick in federal research dollars largely through the $787 billion stimulus package approved last year. The National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health, for example, have more than $10 billion to invest in projects.

In part, President Obama has reasoned that spending in research areas such as clean energy and heart disease will help spur new technology, jobs and economic growth. Others agree.

"A way to stimulate the economy in the long haul is to increase funding for research," said Samuel Traina, vice chancellor for research at the University of California at Merced.

This year, Fresno State and UC Merced have pulled in money to study everything from fish to biofuels. Last year, Fresno State netted $35 million in grants and contracts, which includes money for research.

Thomas McClanahan, Fresno State's associate vice president for research, said the university may beat that figure this year even though some funding has declined.

"There's no question that the stimulus money is essentially keeping us at or above where we've been for the past few years," he said.

So far, Fresno State is second in its capture of stimulus money within the 23-campus California State University system. At $4.5 million, the university trails only San Diego State.

Several officials say the full impact from the stimulus package isn't clear yet because the year isn't over and grant proposals remain in the pipeline.

Generally, the CSU brings in about $500 million annually in grants and contracts compared to more than $3.5 billion for UC, which is more focused on research. CSU is the state's primary undergraduate teaching institution, but also regards research as an important part of its mission.

Elizabeth Ambos, the system's vice chancellor for research initiatives and partnerships, expects the CSU will collect more than $500 million in grants and contracts this year.

"The big difference right now is the stimulus money," she said.

At UC Merced, research awards amounted to $22.8 million last year. Traina expects the figure to rise this year -- just as it has nearly every year since the university launched operations in 2003.

Part of the increase is linked to the university's expansion and the addition of faculty. But Traina said there is more focus on research because federal officials recognize that the country is falling behind on that front.

That shortcoming -- spelled out in the National Academies' report "Rising Above the Gathering Storm" -- prompted legislation in 2007 that authorized more than $40 billion over several years for research and education, though not all of the money has materialized.

Today, UC Merced faculty are engaged in research projects ranging from climate change and stem cells to solar and renewable energy.

For example, engineering professor Elliott Campbell is exploring biofuels through a five-year, $407,588 grant from the National Science Foundation. He's looking at whether abandoned agricultural land might accommodate biofuel crops.

Many plants -- corn and sugar cane, for example -- can be used to produce biofuel and most research now is pointed at that angle, Campbell said. But his focus is on the concept that biofuel crops shouldn't compete for land used to grow food.

"An alternative approach is unused lands, and abandoned land might fit into this category," he said.

Academic experts say such projects benefit students in many ways. They participate -- often getting a paycheck and hands-on experience in careers they may pursue. Professors at the cutting edge of research deliver the most up-to-date classroom instruction.

At Fresno State, Provost William Covino said research opportunities can help improve graduation rates by connecting students more closely to campus. This year, the university launched a program giving dozens of students small grants for research projects.

Students have an integral role in Riley's ongoing work with tilapia, a fish farmed for food. Much of the research under the grant will be conducted by his graduate students.

The group is looking into the hormonal control of appetite and growth during stress. In part, they're investigating how tilapia respond to conditions such as low oxygen levels, netting and crowding.

"All of those inhibit food intake," he said.

Understanding those causes will benefit science and also help farmers better raise tilapia, Riley said.

The reporter can be reached at cfontana@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6312.

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