Montana’s flagship universities break records for research funding

A technician conducts research at the University of Montana. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file)

(Daily Montanan) Both of Montana’s flagship campuses announced this month record breaking research activity for the 2021 fiscal year, $138 million in awards in Missoula and $193 million in Bozeman.

“UM is quickly emerging as a regional research leader,” said Scott Whittenburg, University of Montana vice president for research and creative scholarship and dean of the Graduate School in a statement. “This continued growth is driven by students, faculty and staff, who are motivated to solve some of the most pressing challenges facing society.”

UM reported the $138 million in research awards in a news release Wednesday. UM said it represented a 38 percent increase over the previous year, also a record.

Earlier this month, Montana State University announced a record for the third year in a row, the $193 million a 16 percent bump from the previous year.

“Despite the disruptions of the pandemic, research at MSU had another remarkable year because of the commitment of our faculty, staff and students,” said Jason Carter, MSU’s vice president for research, economic development and graduate education, in a statement. “Their passion for what they do every day really shined through.”

At UM, Whittenburg said he believes the increase in research will continue, citing funding requests of $285 million last year, also a record. He said he hopes UM achieves the top Carnegie Research ranking, R1, the highest classification awarded to universities in the United States based on research activity and impact, according to the campus.

Funders include the National Institutes of Health, NASA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and private sector contracts, and projects cut across disciplines, from health sciences to natural resources to computer sciences, UM said. The campus also noted the research contributes to the state’s economy.

“On-campus research at UM also has helped spur private business spinoffs, which are located in Missoula and employ dozens of researchers at high-paying salaries,” UM said.

At MSU, already an R1 institution, research projects address community wellness, food and fuel security and environmental stewardship. A  news release noted the College of Agriculture recorded the largest research investment of $46 million, followed by the College of Letters and Sciences at $22 million, and it cited 672 new grants or contracts awarded.

Among the projects is a $750,000 NASA grant to physics researcher Amy Reines “to study the origins of supermassive black holes, the mysterious masses that consume matter at the center of large galaxies,” according to MSU.

MSU also noted the College of Agriculture received $5.1 million from the U.S. Department of Energy to study food and biofuel potential of camelina, “a multi-use oilseed crop similar to canola.”

In the news release, Carter said this year’s research accomplishments have extra significance because MSU was able to continue working despite the pandemic and also studied the coronavirus.

“It was incredible to see a number of our faculty and researchers pivot their programs to study the virus,” Carter said. “This included research on wastewater, mental health, epidemiological modeling, how the virus impacted rural and tribal communities, and much more.”