WASHINGTON – Elizabeth North may not win any awards for snappy titles, but she did score an award from the National Science Foundation.
The title of her blue-crab research project — “Larval Transport in a Coupled-Estuary-Shelf System” — could be rather off-putting to the watermen it may ultimately benefit. But the NSF looked beyond the title and granted her $280,000 to find out whether crab larvae float on the surface or ride deeper currents to and from the ocean during their early development.
Such esoteric details may help explain why the bay’s blue crab population can fluctuate so widely from year to year, North said — a matter of intense interest to the watermen who make their living on the peripatetic crustacean.
It is another example of the vital role the foundation plays in promoting “pure” or “basic” scientific studies both here and across the United States.
Maryland researchers received 636 NSF grants worth $132 million in 2004. That was just a sliver of the total $9 billion in federal research and development funds that flowed into the state in 2004.
But while much of the overall funding went to health and life sciences research, the state’s significantly smaller NSF portfolio is more eclectic. This year, figures from the agency show that 23 percent of all active grants are in math and physical sciences, followed by 21 percent in education and human resources, and 15 percent in engineering.
There’s even a sliver — 1 percent — for polar research.
Universities are the major recipients, accounting for about 71 percent of Maryland’s NSF grants: The University of Maryland took in more than $40 million of the state’s total, followed by Johns Hopkins University, with just over $30 million.
Because of its willingness to fund speculative research, NSF plays a “critical role” in university-based research, said Bob Boege, executive director of the Alliance for Science and Technology Research in America. Not only is the foundation charged with funding cutting-edge studies, it also encourages young scientists to stay in the academic world.
North, 34, is a case in point. She traces her scientific interests back to childhood summers spent swimming in the Chesapeake Bay and eating blue crabs.
She has participated in other research, she said, but the NSF grant marks her first time as a “full-blown” project leader — or principal investigator, in scientific parlance — designing a study and assembling a team.
It was also a major factor in her recent appointment as an assistant professor at the University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Science in Cambridge, as well as helping her win an additional state grant.
Her project team now includes field researchers as well as computer and mathematic experts who will create digital models of crab larvae movement and environments. She is particularly proud to have enlisted Charles E. Epifanio of the University of Delaware, one of the area’s top experts on blue crabs.
“The NSF grants are one of the most prestigious,” she said. “The competition is intense; the review process is fair. I can’t say enough how the NSF supports . . . forward-looking research.”
Which is why, many scientists say, a recent cut in the agency’s funding is so worrisome.
The agency’s budget took a 2 percent cut in funds — about $170 million — to $5.5 billion in 2005. That, say some scientists, could signal a weakening commitment to basic research and threaten U.S. innovation and competitiveness in the global market.
Funding for science has a connection with “jobs, innovation, with standard of living, with national security,” Boege said. But, “that has not come through in congressional funding. . . . The budget is being balanced on the back of the physical sciences and engineering.”
NSF funding in Maryland has increased steadily over the last decade, rising a total of 44 percent during that period. But while the state’s funding has gone up, its rank among states receiving NSF funds has slipped, falling from 12th place in 1995 to 15th place in 2004, according to a Capital News Service analysis of funding records. Virginia, by contrast, has moved from 13th to second place over the decade.
For North, however, how the money is divided up is not as important as the fact that the money is there for researchers like herself.
“There are very few places where you can take an idea that is generated by people working in the community and pursue a cutting-edge (study),” North said. “The NSF is the best place to do that.”
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