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Research funding, spending up at UB

The University at Buffalo saw spending on research go up more than 11 percent last year to nearly $300 million.

Medical research is still UB's bread and butter, accounting for 69 percent of the $297.9 million in funding the university and its research affiliates brought in during the 2006 fiscal year, according to a recent university report.

Much of that funding was from the federal government, specifically through the Department of Health and Human Services.

But federal dollars can ebb and flow to fields of research as public and government interests change, explained Jorge Jose, UB vice president for research.

Cutting-edge technology for homeland security purposes is a hot field of research, for example. Energy and development of alternative fuels is another area of interest these days.

So is research on helping kids learn and succeed in school, Jose said.

This helped boost UB's numbers last year, allowing some faculty to find funding from sources that haven't traditionally supported research at the university, he said.

"We need to see where the interest will be three, four, five years from now and try to prepare for that today," said Jose, pointing out the intense competition for research funds.

"We have to be fast, and we have to be flexible," he said.

Research money is one of the barometers for UB, which has ambitious goals of growing its reputation into one of the top-tier public research institutes in the United States.

UB ranked No. 40 in research spending among public universities in the nation, according to a 2005 survey by the National Science Foundation, the most complete figures available for the nation's colleges and universities.

Just ahead of UB on the list was the University of Cincinnati and the University of California, Irvine. Just behind UB were Oregon Health & Science University and the University at Albany.

Public universities at the top of the list brought in $700 million to $800 million in research funding.

When Jose came aboard as vice president for research at UB two years ago, the goal was to increase the university's spending on research and development to around $400 million over five years.

"We will do it," Jose said.

In recent years, the university has been stressing more faculty collaboration across disciplines to capture more research dollars.

In return, UB is rewarding some of those most promising projects with seed money.

At UB's Center for Unified Biometrics and Sensors, for example, an interdisciplinary team of faculty and students is taking advantage of the interest in funding research for use in homeland security.

"Anything you can do to make life [easier] for travelers is going to be a good research area," said center director Venu Govindaraju, a professor of computer science and engineering.

The center, known as CUBS, is combining fingerprinting, voice, iris, signature and facial-recognition technologies to develop devices for easier, more accurate identification.

Applications could range from fraud-proofing credit cards to identifying terrorists at checkpoints.

One recent proposal with hopes of being funded involves developing a computer with the ability to read faces and voices to help recognize when people are lying, Govindaraju said.

"It's not easy," he said of securing research grants. "You're competing against a lot of big schools. It's very competitive."

e-mail: jrey@buffnews.com

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