Stimulus funds boost research in Georgia

Several Georgia Tech professors are seeking to understand how jazz, avant-garde art and Indian classical musicians improvise.

Another Tech researcher will study elderly people playing video games, hoping her work could help create guidelines for developing other “brain games” for seniors.

Meanwhile, a University of West Georgia professor is investigating the political consequences of climate change in the Arctic.

All three of these research projects have something in common: they are among hundreds at Georgia universities that are being funded with federal economic stimulus dollars.

Most focus on conventional subjects: cancer, AIDS, computer science, solar energy. But a fraction of them stick out. Their benefits are less obvious — especially in terms of how they could help stimulate the economy.

Congress set aside $21 billion of the $787 billion stimulus program for research and development, and scientific-related equipment and construction, according to The National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, NASA and the Energy Department are responsible for distributing the money. The NIH and NSF combined have awarded Georgia $123 million for such projects so far.

Proponents say the spending is creating some jobs now and pumping up the nation’s scientific know-how, which will pay dividends for years to come. Critics, however, say the nation can’t afford the spending in the middle of a recession, and should find ways to create many more jobs quickly.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reviewed hundreds of records of these grants and identified several that appear out of the ordinary. The AJC asked the researchers and their universities to talk about the projects’ purposes and their economic value.

Here is what some said:

• The federal government awarded Parag Chordia, an assistant music professor at Georgia Tech, and several colleagues $762,372 in stimulus funds to study how musicians improvise. They plan to use brain imaging to learn how musicians do their work. And they hope their research will help develop new technologies that support creativity in music, education and other areas. For jobs created or saved, the university said the $48,050 spent between Oct. 1 and Dec. 31 supported three graduate research assistants. “We are putting money into the local economy that is supporting local jobs,” Chordia said, adding: “We are creating the intellectual capital to support future growth.”

• Maribeth Coleman, a research scientist at Georgia Tech, received a $427,824 stimulus grant to study how video games — including the Wii Boom Blox game — can help improve mental health for the elderly. She declined to be interviewed for this article. The university issued a statement saying: “The goal of the project is to provide therapies in the home that will provide cognitive benefits to older people.” As for jobs: Tech tied a research scientist to the $12,560 spent on the project during the last three months of 2009.

• The federal government also awarded $82,710 for Hannes Gerhardt, an assistant geography professor at the University of West Georgia, to study Arctic territorial claims made by various nations amid climate change, including Russia and the United States. Gerhardt said he is collaborating with colleagues from other universities. He hopes their work could help peacefully resolve any conflicts that may arise among these nations. Gerhardt said he has not spent any of the money yet but that it will eventually cover the cost of his trips to Denmark and Norway, translation services and the positions of two undergraduate research assistants.

• Researchers at Emory University are using stimulus funds for a project to help understand post-traumatic stress disorder through tests on monkeys. Another Emory researcher is trying to come up with a new method of turning solar energy into a fuel source. In both cases, researchers said the projects are advancing scientific knowledge. The National Science Foundation gave a Georgia State University professor a $581,591 stimulus grant to discover stars light years away. He declined to be interviewed for this article.

Among researchers the AJC contacted, several said they had applied for federal funding months before the stimulus program was even discussed. Coleman, for example, applied in 2008 for her grant to study video games, according to Georgia Tech. James Cox, director of Georgia State University’s Experimental Economics Center, said he applied for his science grant in 2008 but did not receive his award for $329,511 until after the stimulus funding became available in 2009. Cox is studying complex economic theories using computer-based games. He expects his research could help craft public policy governing limited natural resources, such as forests, fish and water.

Some projects had previously been rejected. Gerhardt, the West Georgia professor studying the Arctic, said the federal government turned down his project in 2008 because it wanted more details about his team’s methods. He said he got the stimulus funding after submitting more information.

In all, the National Science Foundation has awarded stimulus funding to 318 projects that it had previously declined. That’s about 7 percent of the 4,599 proposals that have received such money across the country, public records show. A spokeswoman for the agency said it revisited proposals that were declined but had nevertheless received high ratings.

The National Institutes of Health, meanwhile, has awarded 3,895 grants totaling $1.43 billion in stimulus funds for projects across the country that were similarly reviewed and “deemed as high quality” but didn’t make the cut, a spokesman said.

Critics — including Republicans who voted against the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act last year — have assailed the stimulus program as a waste, saying it has driven up the national debt while failing to reduce high unemployment rates.

“If we couldn’t afford [these projects] two years ago, we certainly can’t afford them now in the middle of a recession,” said Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste, a Washington government watchdog group. “Certainly, individuals who don’t have a job would be looking at this and saying, ‘What is that doing to help me find a job?’”

Proponents say the spending is creating jobs in Georgia — though in modest numbers — and leading to advances in science and medicine. They also point out that one of the purposes of the Recovery Act is “to provide investments needed to increase economic efficiency by spurring technological advances in science and health.”

Georgia Tech’s provost and executive vice president for academic affairs, Gary Schuster, spoke in favor of research spending: “If you don’t innovate as a corporation or as a nation, somebody else is going to dominate the market for you. Investment in research is an investment in innovation and I think it is critical to our economic success both as a state and a region and the nation.”

When President Barack Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act last year, he said he hoped the spending would “ignite our imagination once more, spurring new discoveries and breakthroughs in science, in medicine, in energy, to make our economy stronger and our nation more secure and our planet safer for our children.”

The Washington-based Association of American Universities is among the stimulus program’s supporters.

“The authors of this legislation were thinking primarily about our short-term economic problems but also about our long-term economic prosperity — hence the name ‘Recovery and Reinvestment,’” said Barry Toiv, a spokesman for the association. “A small percentage of the funds — a few percent — therefore was devoted to scientific research, which pays enormous long-term benefits.”

Georgia universities and other organizations attributed 345 jobs to $12.2 million in NSF and NIH stimulus grant spending between Oct. 1 and Dec. 31. Among the jobs they reported funding were positions for researchers, their graduate student assistants and lab technicians.

But not all of these research projects are equal when it comes to stimulating the economy, said Roger Tutterow, an economics professor at Mercer University.

“I’m not sure that all the projects listed were perhaps what was the original intent behind supporting research,” Tutterow said after reviewing the stimulus grants at the request of the AJC. “If we start talking about just payments to individuals, then the economic impact is probably not as broad as if we start supporting projects that also involve, for example, the purchasing of equipment and the establishment of laboratories that would spread out the impact throughout the economy.”

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