Strategic use of research fund may give NAU an edge

The interior of the NAU research greenhouse has gone from dull to brilliant with streams of sunlight allowed in by re-glazed glass panels, installed thanks to an infusion of funding over the summer. Photo courtesy NAU IDEA Lab

Sunlight streams through re-glazed glass panels at the Northern Arizona University research greenhouse because of research investments by the university.

The same funds provided for 64 new fan motors at the greenhouse and a backup generator at NAU’s Animal Care Facility.

Such improvements enhance NAU’s chances to win research grant awards, and it’s those awards—or at least a portion of them—that generate the dollars in the research investment fund.

The fund, new this year, originates from indirect cost recovery: funds requested as part of a grant application that support infrastructure, such as administration, building use and equipment maintenance. Previously, most funding for research infrastructure came from NAU’s central account.

Not all grants allow for indirect costs. But researchers must include them in their proposals in order to receive them, which is why Laura Huenneke, NAU vice president for Research, is encouraging them to do so. Not everyone, she says, fully realizes the advantages.

“We’re educating faculty about why it’s a good thing to bring in indirect cost recovery,” Huenneke said. “It’s a federally negotiated, audited rate aimed at compensating the university for its very real expenses.” Recovered indirect cost dollars pay the salaries of research support staff and go to the investigators, departments and colleges that generate the grants.

Huenneke administers the research investment fund, which is being used to make improvements in facilities, equipment and maintenance, and in Cline Library’s journal subscriptions. It also is providing matching funds for large new grants and new staff support in several colleges for preparing and managing grant projects.

“Our approach now makes it more transparent to the faculty,” Hueneke said. “Even though times are tough, we are a research university, and we’re trying to create conditions to allow faculty to be successful researchers and scholars.”

Varying rates

Northern Arizona University’s negotiated, federally approved rate of indirect costs for research projects is 49 percent of the direct costs of carrying out a project. The National Institutes of Health generally pay the full indirect cost rate of 49 percent, but the U.S. Department of Education allows only 8 percent, and for state agencies in Arizona, the number is often zero. Under the NIH formula, a $1 million grant could bring $1.49 million total to the university, and the $0.49 million can make real contributions to building capacity and infrastructure.

So far this fiscal year (beginning July 2011), 103 research grant awards have brought $26.75 million to NAU, in addition to $4.5 million in indirect cost recovery, which feeds the research investment fund. In an era of declining state support, the dollar amounts are significant.

At the research greenhouse, manager Brad Blake and plant production manager Phil Patterson faced an aging facility with a drastically reduced maintenance budget.

“We were down to 40 percent light infiltration” in one of the eight greenhouses, Patterson said. “We could shift around plants to better light, but that required water and fertilization changes.”

Those sorts of variables can wreak havoc with research projects of faculty and students. But with an infusion of funding in summer 2011, the greenhouse underwent a re-glazing project that transformed its interiors from dull to brilliant. All eight greenhouses also received new energy-efficient fan motors, a crucial element to maintaining optimum temperatures.

The improvements make the greenhouse complex more attractive as a research site and improve its performance as a service center, growing Ponderosa pine seedlings under contract.

Across campus, infrastructure improvements at the Animal Care Facility may lead to national accreditation. Tom Greene, animal care manager, explained that a new backup generator “will keep the facility operational during any kind of power failure. That’s critical because our primary focal point is the health and welfare of the animals.”

The facility already follows the strict standards of the Office of Lab Animal Welfare Assurance, Greene said, but the generator and other improvements to humidity control may help gain accreditation from the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Lab Animal Care.

“Having accreditation would deliver a big message to researchers and the community,” Greene said. “Our program abides by the highest standards of animal care and we perform quality research. I hope accreditation makes us more attractive and competitive.”

Huenneke said that same hope drives all the investments being made in research capacity and infrastructure. “Our faculty and students can’t remain competitive for grants, and they can’t succeed in high-impact research, if we don’t keep facilities and equipment up to date. The new research investment fund is filling some of the most important gaps across campus and giving our researchers a greater advantage.”