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Corridor money down

April 28, 2004

Michigan's Life Sciences Corridor funding, a $40 million windfall for MSU researchers in 2001, has generated only $2.3 million for the university in the past two years.

Last year, MSU lagged behind other state schools in obtaining Michigan's most lucrative research grants - the corridor funds - even while a recent national study showed the state of Michigan's universities to be ranked in the top 10 for federal research funding.

In 2003, MSU took only a 10-percent slice of a $22.9 million corridor-funding pie, which is intended to make the state a global center for the life sciences, research and business development.

A State News computer analysis of Michigan Economic Development Corp. (MEDC) data, the state-run firm that manages the corridor, showed that Wayne State University took in 33 percent of the 2003 funds and the University of Michigan nabbed 32 percent. Researchers apply to MEDC to fund their projects.

With MSU facing a budget crunch this year, administrators and researchers say collecting grants from the state is as important as ever.

Robert Huggett, MSU vice president for research and graduate studies, said MSU should do well this year. He said in one of the corridor's several funding categories, MSU will submit half of all suggested projects. MEDC will announce grant recipients in June.

Huggett expects MSU's 2004 corridor funds to pay not only for the proposed projects, but also to help bring in federal and private research dollars.

"We call it leveraging," he said. "That is what research is all about - you often ask or discover there are more questions than you thought about and then can pursue other funding sources."

Huggett suggested that MSU's sagging funding is because of the state cutting corridor dollars down from a $117.8 million total in the program's first two years to only $22.9 million last year.

As MSU refocuses its efforts on obtaining corridor dollars, the state is redefining the corridor itself. In October, Gov. Jennifer Granholm signed an executive order that transformed the Life Sciences Corridor into the Technology Tri-Corridor - allowing homeland security and automotive technology to join life-science projects in applying for state dollars.

Born in 1999, the Life Science Corridor was a cooperative effort between the state of Michigan, the Van Andel Research Institute in Grand Rapids, MSU, U-M and Wayne State University.

In the 2000-01 granting cycle, only 23 percent of the projects were given to non-university companies. In 2003, 58 percent of the projects were at off-campus firms.

That works toward the corridor's goal of creating jobs and building businesses in Michigan, said Jeff Mason, MEDC senior vice president for technology development.

"With the Tri-Corridor, you will see that combination of university research and private sector work continue to stimulate great research," he said. "It will create jobs and growth."

For MSU to restore funding to the level it received in the 2000-01 granting cycle - when it took 34 percent of all corridor funds - it will need to repeat the success of Pathobiology and Diagnostic Investigation Professor Jack Harkema.

In that granting cycle, he received $2.13 million to research the impact of air pollutants on people with asthma and other respiratory diseases.

The corridor funding allowed Harkema and other scientists from MSU and U-M to build a mobile laboratory in a semi-truck trailer. There, scientists exposed laboratory rats to various levels and types of air pollution in Detroit and Grand Rapids.

His findings - that those with asthma might be more severely affected by pollution than those without - have brought MSU more funding for further research from the National Science Foundation and the Environmental Protection Agency.

"We have garnered a lot of research funding and supported a lot of grad and undergrad students with those funds, besides finding a lot of interesting data," he said of the corridor dollars.

As the budget dollars fluctuate and the state's goals shift, Harkema said MSU researchers need to cooperate with private firms and other universities to succeed.

"One of the main reasons for the Life Sciences Corridor was to get these big institutions together," he said. "Take the best minds and work together as a team, rather than stay within your own institution."

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