Tuesday, March 3, 2009 | San Diego County research institutions and companies are positioned well in the race for a piece of the $13 billion in federal science research money from that will be doled out as part of the overall $787 billion stimulus package that President Obama signed into law last month.

The vast majority of the money will be distributed through competitive grants, which plays to the strengths of San Diego’s vaunted scientific research institutions, and should ensure that the region will get its share, if not more than its share of the $10 billion from the National Institutes of Health and $3 billion from the National Science Foundation.

“The feeling is that this is an opportunity — don’t blow it,” said Duane Roth, chief executive officer of Connect, the high-tech and biotech industry association.

San Diego County entities received $804 million in National Institutes of Health grants in 2008 as part of its standard budget, more than the total amounts garnered by all but seven states. The University of California, San Diego alone was the recipient of $334 million in NIH funding — topping both Virginia and Colorado. About $100 million in National Science Foundation grants also flowed into the county last year.

Four percent of all the money allocated by the NIH in 2008 flowed into San Diego County. If local institutions and companies garner a similar portion of the stimulus money dedicated to research, at least $40 million could end up in the hands of local researchers.

All told, 95 entities in San Diego County received NIH money last year. Beyond UCSD, the largest recipients include The Scripps Research Institute, Salk Institute for Biological Studies, Burnham Institute for Medical Research and San Diego State University.

However, no one — including the federal agencies — knows exactly how it will be distributed. And because the stimulus money must be granted and spent in within two years, many are worried that there will be a short-term boost, but not the long-term commitment that research breakthroughs require.

“It is a brief period of opportunity,” said Thomas R. Scott, SDSU vice president for research and graduate dean. “But we are concerned about what will follow that brief period.”

This sense of urgency and tinge of unease has university professors, biotech industry boosters and research institution heads shuttling back and forth to Washington D.C. to try to get a handle on how the money will be doled out. They are also schmoozing senators and representatives who will ultimately determine whether the money will continue to flow once the financial crisis has passed.

Just in the past week, visitors to Capitol Hill have included Scott, Joseph Panetta, CEO of the biotechnology industry association Biocom, and John Reed, CEO of Burnham.

At this point they know that about $2 billion, will go toward equipment and construction projects at the NIH headquarters and universities across the country, most of the money will fund tens of thousands of grants nationwide.

Like with construction projects funded by stimulus money, first priority will go to projects that are so-called “beaker ready,” those that are either already funded, or can be ramped up quickly and show results within two years.

There is a sense that the agency will direct the money toward the huge backlog of grant proposals already in the pipeline, rather than put out a big call for new proposals. But proposals have to be examined to fit into the two-year spending frame of the stimulus. And that is the difficult part, said Barbara Perry, director of government research relations for UCSD.

“It is unconventional in that the time period is short,” Perry said. “The intent is to stimulate the economy, not necessarily to cure some disease.”

Researchers say there is no shortage of strong local projects that need funding. A childhood obesity project being run by SDSU behavioral psychologist John Elder is one of those. The project, which is run through the city of San Diego’s recreation centers, works to educate parents on their children’s eating and exercise habits. The NIH funded the five-year project three years ago, but this year cut funding by 30 percent.

“This project can get the money out there, and get it moving,” said Elder, who traveled to Washington D.C. last week to talk to NIH officials. “We were told that personnel-heavy grants will be favored. They want to see people hired.”

Other grants that should get a high priority are those that in past years have made in to the end of the approval process and received high scores, but did not get funded because of the shrinking NIH budget in recent years. One of those includes a study of cell movement, which is essential to a wide range of biological questions from how an embryo develops to how our immune systems function.

Recently “we have seen really, really great science that is not being supported that would have been supported a few years ago,” said Rick Firtel, a leader in that study and an associate dean in UCSD’s division of biological sciences. “What the stimulus package will do is put things back on an even keel where you don’t have to choose excellence over excellence.”

Please contact David Washburn directly at david.washburn@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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