In The Lead: The rise of research in Western Pennsylvania

Western Pennsylvania universities are engaged in more than $1 billion of research and development a year


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Western Pennsylvania universities are engaged in more than $1 billion of research and development a year, one of the ways that universities are economic generators for the region.

That money — spent on fields ranging from engineering to psychology — puts some local institutions in national rankings in 2011-12, the most recent year available.

The University of Pittsburgh, with $866.6 million of research and development expenditures, ranked 12th in the nation and eighth among public institutions. Carnegie Mellon University, with $255.9 million, ranked 82nd nationwide and 29th among private universities nationwide.

Some other local schools made the rankings as well. Duquesne University, with $15.5 million, was 293rd among all universities and 80th among private schools, while Indiana University of Pennsylvania, with $1.8 million, was 552nd among all universities and 361st among public universities.

The rankings named 655 schools, including 406 public institutions and 249 private ones. Some other area schools not named in the rankings also do research and development or partner with some of the larger schools.

The numbers come from the National Science Foundation's National Center for Science Engineering Statistics and cover science and engineering research as well as other fields. The stats count funds from federal, state and local government, institution funds, business, nonprofit organizations and other sources.

Over his 24-year career at CMU and Pitt, Prashant Kumta — who is the Edward R. Weidlein chair professor of several engineering fields at Pitt and a professor of oral biology in the Pitt School of Dental Medicine — has attracted nearly $40 million in external support.

But that doesn't mean it's easy.

When he first became an assistant professor at CMU in 1990, he didn't have a winning grant proposal for at least three years. He almost gave up on academia, but grant money from several sources came through in time to help establish his initial research into energy storage, including lithium ion batteries.

In March, Pitt announced that Mr. Kumta is the principal investigator on a project studying additive manufacturing of biomedical devices from bioabsorbable metallic alloys for medical applications. It involves both the Swanson School of Engineering and the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine, and is supported by $590,000 in internal and external funding as well as by participation by corporate partners.

The proposal looks at whether 3-D printers can make medical devices from resorbable metals for patients with orthopedic, craniofacial, cardiovascular and other needs.

Mr. Kumta and his dental school colleagues also have worked on developing a calcium phosphate putty that can be used as bone filler in craniofacial surgery and dental implants. That project received $5 million from the Department of Defense, $1.2 million from the National Institutes of Health and $800,000 from the state.

The patented technology has been licensed to a company that plans to get approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Mr. Kumta said research opportunities have attracted students to Pittsburgh and helped start-up companies. Beyond any benefit to the universities and their rankings, he said, research dollars have fueled scientific and technological advances that have improved lives.

At Duquesne University, Alan Seadler, associate provost for research, said its research and development money goes to chemistry, life sciences, pharmacy and other fields. He said the university has invested in both the equipment and its maintenance.

"It's very important to us," said Mr. Seadler, noting that all faculty both teach and do research.

"We don't think the quality of our faculty teaching would be the same as it is without their independent work and their own scholarship," he said.

Mr. Seadler is working on a project funded by $550,000 from an anonymous donor. The effort — which also will involve Carlow University and Community College of Allegheny County — will develop a community biotechnology lab to support middle and high school teachers and students.

In addition to helping the universities, research dollars also have an impact on the region, Mr. Seadler said.

"I think we're a region in some regards dominated by eds and meds. Research is very important to our position in the universities and the economic community, but it's equally important to sustaining our position in the fields of medicine, which are a very large industry here in Pittsburgh."

Overall, Allegheny County colleges and universities have an economic impact of nearly $3.2 billion, counting a range of spending, from employees to construction, according to the Pittsburgh Council on Higher Education.

— Education writer Eleanor Chute: echute@post-gazette or 412-263-1955.


First Published May 13, 2014 11:26 AM

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