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Grant rise helps boost A&S funds

External grant activity in the sciences increased sharply last year, with administrators crediting an ambitious faculty, more available funds from some federal bodies and an institutional encouragement to pursue larger, often interdisciplinary grants.

 As a result, the amount of money given to Arts and Sciences to compensate for the indirect costs associated with receiving a grant--including laboratories, equipment and administration costs--went up 20 percent last year, said Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences William Chafe. This jump is the most dramatic spike in a five-year upward trend.

 The boom was a welcome short-term fix for the struggling finances of Arts and Sciences, which faces projected deficits for the next several years. Indirect cost recovery provides about $9 to $11 million to Arts and Sciences, or 4 to 5 percent of the budget.

 A number of factors have contributed to the boost in grant activity in the sciences, historically weaker at Duke than at peer institutions. Administrators credited Building on Excellence, the University's current strategic plan, with providing important groundwork for obtaining large-scale external grants.

 "Ever since the strategic plan has been in place, [the University has] been able to really invest in infrastructure for the sciences. That has enabled people at Duke to do better in the sciences and do better in grants," said Dean of Natural Sciences Berndt Mueller.

 Building on Excellence also calls for an emphasis on interdisciplinary activity, which has helped with external grants because some of the largest grants available are for cross-disciplinary work, said Vice Provost for Research James Siedow.

 Grants are ultimately obtained by faculty members, and administrators said their enterprise and ambition for external grants has markedly improved. Mueller pointed in particular to the efforts of science faculty members hired over the last 10 years.

 The administration has been committed to helping the faculty find funding sources for research. "The Office of Research Support has really made a strong effort to alert people to grant opportunities... that in the past went by unutilized," Mueller said.

 Overall, the amount of funding available from major federal agencies, like the National Science Foundation, has not increased dramatically. A doubled budget for the National Institutes of Health, however, has provided a boon to Arts and Sciences faculty members who conduct health-related research.

 The future of grant activity in Arts and Sciences appears bright, although it will probably not increase at a rate of 20 percent, administrators said. Siedow said it would be reasonable to shoot for a rate of 7 to 7.5 percent.

 A positive development for research will be the arrival of new facilities like the French Science Center and the Center for Interdisciplinary Engineering, Medicine and Applied Sciences.

 "They will help a great deal," Mueller said of the new facilities.

 "Without [them], I am fairly sure that we would reach a point where the growth would top out.... I think it's really critical for these new facilities to be available in the next two to four years." Duke, which has invested heavily in the sciences only recently compared to several other top-tier research institutions, still lags behind its peers in science external grant activity.

 "We're not quite there yet, but we are definitely catching up," Mueller said. "We've moved up in comparison, but if I look at institutions like Stanford, Johns Hopkins and so forth, we have some ways to go."

 Support from the University may prove decisive. "In the sciences, it's fundamentally infrastructure that makes you competitive or not," he said.

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