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September 17, 2009

Pitt garners millions in stimulus research funds

Whether Pitt will receive a portion of Pennsylvania’s share of federal stimulus funds for education remains unclear, but the University already is seeing millions of dollars in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) money that has been earmarked for research.

Although Gov. Edward G. Rendell caused an uproar by cutting the state-related universities, including Pitt, from the state’s application for ARRA education funding (see July 23 University Times) in his June 26 budget proposal, a state House bill proposes $10.24 million in stimulus funds for Pitt, while a Senate bill would allocate nearly $7.68 million. Given that the state budget remains incomplete, those dollars remain in question.

Better financial news is coming in the form of new research dollars already flowing to the University from the $800 billion ARRA.

As of Sept. 9, Pitt had submitted 1,168 stimulus-related applications, according to Allen DiPalma, director of the Office of Research.

As of Sept. 8, Pitt had received 155 awards worth almost $68.5 million in new or continued funding from sources including the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Education, the Health Resources and Services Administration and the National Science Foundation. Of that total, $61.7 million was in research awards, with another $6.7 million received in the form of Pell grant and student work-study funding.

In choosing how to distribute ARRA research funding, the NIH and NSF took different tacks, DiPalma said. NSF chose to concentrate on applications that already had been submitted, using the stimulus money to fund more projects than it would have been able to otherwise. NIH took a more multifaceted approach, with some funding going toward applications already submitted and some for new solicitations.

The vast majority of Pitt’s grants have come through NIH, which listed in its searchable database 126 stimulus-related grants to the University as of Sept. 11.

“We’ve received a little bit of everything so far,” DiPalma said.

“All this money can be considered new money,” he said, adding, “The majority of these awards would not have been funded any other way.”

Jeremy Somers of the Office of Research, Health Sciences, noted that without the stimulus funding, some researchers with projects that didn’t meet the earlier funding cutoffs could have been put out of business. Likewise, some construction on the University’s wish list hinges on the ARRA money. He declined to specify those projects.


In addition to the millions of research dollars the University already has tallied through ARRA funding, the potential remains for millions more. Pitt is awaiting word on additional applications that have been submitted, and although the application pace has slowed from earlier in the year, deadlines still loom for additional ARRA funding.

Somers estimated his office has some $30 million in ARRA funding pending and is about to submit applications for some $10 million more.

Submissions for funding earmarked for research-related construction and renovation projects were due today, Sept. 17.

DiPalma said the University expects to hear within a month the results of approximately $92 million in NIH challenge grants it submitted for an April 27 deadline.

“That was the first really big open solicitation,” DiPalma said. “Everyone jumped on board thinking they had to submit something.”

The influx stretched the capacity of the Office of Research staff, which includes 33 full-time employees and four temps. Between the challenge grant deadline and another for NIH RC 2 funding that followed a month later, DiPalma’s staff handled some 425 applications.

“We were swamped at various times,” he said, noting that the short turnaround time and tight University budget precluded hiring additional people.

Pitt instituted a streamlined review process that shortened its internal deadline from 10 days to five for stimulus-related applications and established an expedited process to review and approve in one-two days information submitted in response to grantmakers’ requests.

DiPalma created an assembly-line process, pulling in staff from across his office help process the applications: One person logged in applications at the door; another reviewed them for the basics; another submitted them, and yet another handled the ones that had problems.

“We looked only at the vitally important aspects of the application,” such as conflict-of-interest and compliance requirements and the use of correct cost rates — “things that jump out at you,” DiPalma said. The office relied on departments for other aspects of the submissions and for revisions. “We shared the endeavor with the departments to get them in, and we did get them all in,” he said.

Updates on the total ARRA research funds received and a list of Pitt’s ARRA-funded projects can be found at

In addition, recipients and sub-recipients of ARRA grants, loans and contracts are required by the act to submit quarterly reports, with the first due in October, DiPalma said. The reports are to be made available to the public at by Oct. 31.

That initial report will give a better idea of the scope of the stimulus act’s impact on the University, including the number of jobs created and retained by the infusion of dollars, DiPalma said. The Office of Research currently is working with the Schools of the Health Sciences, Pitt’s purchasing and research accounting departments and the individual departments that received grants to compile the required data, he said.

“Any time you bring in this amount of money into a local economy, it translates into jobs,” he said.

In anticipation of the potential need to hire people quickly to fill positions associated with the ARRA-related research awards (which must be completed within two-three years as opposed to the typical four-six), the Office of Research collaborated with Human Resources to prime the employment pipeline.

A section for ARRA-related positions was placed on the University’s staff employment web site seeking applicants for research specialist, research assistant, clinical professional and postdoctoral associate positions.  Ron Frisch, associate vice chancellor of Human Resources, said 27 stimulus-related staff job postings have drawn almost 500 applications. Ten of those positions have been filled.

Amid the flurry of activity associated with receiving the funding, questions remain about what will happen after the infusion of stimulus money ends.

“One hopes Congress will increase the appropriation to NIH over the next few fiscal years,” said Somers.

DiPalma said, “If you just cut off money without any long-term plan in place, it’s not going to do much,” and could leave research universities with employees they can’t afford to keep.

He added, “We and other universities are in reactionary mode right now,” concentrating for on receiving the grant awards and putting the money to work, while hoping that down the road increased federal allocations, another round of stimulus money or some other source of funding will allow projects to continue.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

Filed under: Feature,Volume 42 Issue 2

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