UB Plants "Seeds" By Investing In Research Projects; Investment Pays Off 14 Times Over

Release Date: April 27, 1998 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- A University at Buffalo program that provides faculty with "seed" money to pursue promising research ideas has yielded $14 in external funding for every $1 that the university invested in 1994 during the program's first year.

The financial return is only part of the story: Benefits will accrue long into the future, ultimately improving lives, thanks to the program's investments in research on new technologies, assistive devices and fundamental mechanisms behind common medical conditions, as well as other important advances.

"This is a winner for UB from an economic point of view, and a spectacular deal for faculty," said Alan Lockwood, Ph.D., UB professor of neurology.

Lockwood's 1993 seed project proposal funded for $19,100 resulted in a $46,000 grant from the American Tinnitus Association, which in turn resulted in a $1.3 million National Institutes of Health grant earlier this year.

"The program has spurred the kind of research activity that ought to be taking place in a research university," he said. "It's good for the people of New York State and the United States because they'll be deriving benefits from the research we're doing."

By distributing small, one-time grants on a competitive basis to faculty teams, the Multidisciplinary Pilot Project Program (MPPP) encourages researchers to work across traditional disciplinary boundaries to demonstrate preliminary results that they then can present in proposals to external funders.

o A $1.3 million grant to Lockwood and Richard Salvi, Ph.D., professor of communicative disorders and sciences, from the National Institutes of Health to conduct a major investigation of tinnitus and hearing loss using PET (Positron Emission Tomography) scanning. Lockwood and Salvi have located the precise area in the brain responsible for tinnitus, or ringing in the ears, a condition that affects millions of Americans. Original UB investment: $19,100

o A $1 million grant to David B. Bender, Ph.D., associate professor of physiology, and Thomas Lock, M.D., clinical assistant professor of pediatrics at UB and Children's Hospital of Buffalo, from the National Institute for Neurological Disease and Stroke and a $60,000 grant from the McDonnell-Pew Program in Cognitive Neuroscience to develop an animal model of attention deficit disorder. The model will help Bender and Lock develop an understanding of what is occurring in the brains of affected children in order to find new ways to treat the disorder.Original UB investment: $19,600

o A $728,000 grant to Shelly Lane, formerly assistant professor of occupational therapy, and Susan Mistrett, education coordinator in the Center for Assistive Technology, from the Department of Education to fund an innovative program to identify assistive technology materials to support the play of infants and toddlers with physical and developmental disabilities. New York State is using the program as a model across the state and other states are developing programs based on it. Original UB investment: $20,000.

o A $530,000 grant to Satpal Singh, Ph.D., associate professor of biochemical pharmacology, from the National Institute of Medical Sciences to study how chemicals in plants affect heart function in fruit flies in order to examine how such chemicals might affect cardiac function in humans. Original UB investment: $20,000

Orville T. Beachley, Jr., Ph.D., associate vice president for research and professor of chemistry at UB, said he thinks the excellent track record MPPP research projects have had overall in attracting outside funds is partly attributable to the program's unique review process.

Unlike many other internal "seed" programs at universities, the program seeks reviews from experts at other institutions.

"Because we have these proposals reviewed by researchers all over the world, the faculty get valuable feedback about the quality of their proposals," he continued.

In an era of shrinking federal dollars for research, internal funding will become more and more important, particularly because funders expect to see some of the research already done, Beachley explained.

"Faculty don't have extra money on grants to try to get preliminary data for their next proposals," he said, "so the university needs to reinvest."

Now in its fifth year, the program has met with great enthusiasm from faculty, attracting about 50 proposals each year, about 15 of which are funded.

"We had a great idea and no data," said Lockwood, describing the predicament of most faculty members who apply for seed money.

The seed program gave Lockwood and Salvi an opportunity to get started and to leverage the UB funding for additional support.

"We used the seed money from UB to get enough data that allowed us to make a proposal to the American Tinnitus Association," said Lockwood.

In 1996, the association awarded $46,000 to the UB researchers who combined the data they developed with that money with the data they developed with the seed funding. The result was the $1.3 million grant from the NIH.

"It was the seed money that really got the whole thing off the ground," Lockwood said.

Similarly, writing a proposal for seed funding gave occupational-therapy faculty members Susan Mistrett and Shelly Lane a chance to develop and refine their ideas for their "Let's Play" project.

"Through the preliminary work, we were able to find out what the weaknesses in our model were," said Mistrett. "It made us very sure-footed when it came time to apply for federal funding."

Now in its third year, the U.S. Department of Education-funded model, the focus of which is to facilitate play for infants with physical disabilities, is being replicated at two other sites in New York State.

For David Bender, the seed money came at a critical time.

He and Thomas Lock, wanted to study the origins of attention deficit disorder in the brain by developing a primate model for the condition.

Their attempts to get external funding followed a typical course. In their first attempt to get external funding, they scored well, but not high enough to get support, and were in the process of revising their proposal. With money running out, they were in danger of losing an important lab technician.

"The multidisciplinary pilot project funds helped us over a hump when we had no money," he said. "Faculty have to be able to apply three, even four times before they get funded," said Bender, "but by that time, it could be three years, so your enthusiasm and self-confidence begin to go down. When we got the MPPP award, we were perked up because now we knew we could really get some work done."

With some preliminary data under their belts, they were eventually able to obtain more than $1 million in external funding from government and private sources.

Without the seed funding, Bender said, he probably would have continued to apply to outside agencies.

"But you never know, at some point, you just might quit," he said.

For that reason, explained Dale M. Landi, Ph.D., vice president for research at UB, seed programs that reward innovation are critical to all institutions involved in research and development.

He added that among managers in industry, the rule of thumb is to invest 10 percent of the R&D budget each year in new projects.

"At UB, we need to continue to provide seed funding for our investigators that allow ideas to flourish and that lead to new project starts," said Landi. "If you keep spending just on existing R&D projects, you'll fall behind."

Landi noted that investments in new projects often take years to bring in a payoff.

"In the research business, what you do or don't do this year, has an impact three to five years from now," he said.

He noted, for example, that Lockwood and Salvi applied for seed funding in 1993 and got their NIH grant this year.

"The NIH grant is a five-year award," said Landi, "so the university will be getting that return through 2003 for an initiative it took back in 1993."

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