For a third year running, Montana State University recorded an all-time high for research expenditures, tallying more than $193 million for the fiscal year ending in June.
That figure marks a 16% increase over the previous year’s total expenditures of $167 million reported to the National Science Foundation and adds to more than a decade of research expenditures topping $100 million, according to Jason Carter, MSU’s vice president for research, economic development and graduate education.
"Despite the disruptions of the pandemic, research at MSU had another remarkable year because of the commitment of our faculty, staff and students," Carter said. "Their passion for what they do every day really shined through."
According to Carter, the past year showed diversified investment across MSU's research entities, substantially addressing “grand challenges” identified in MSU’s strategic plan, “Choosing Promise,” including community wellness, food and fuel security, and environmental stewardship.
The College of Agriculture recorded the largest figure, nearly $46 million, followed by the College of Letters and Sciences at $22 million and the Norm Asbjornson College of Engineering at $18 million. The College of Nursing tallied $7 million, with the College of Education, Health and Human Development at $5 million. MSU's MilTech had a total of $22 million in expenditures, while the Western Transportation Institute had $5 million and the Center for American Indian and Rural Health Equity had nearly $3 million.
MSU is recognized as R1, or "very high research activity," by the Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research’s Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, more frequently know as simply the “Carnegie Classification." Montana State is one of only 131 universities nationwide in that category and the only one in the five-state region of Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and North and South Dakota, as well as one of only two nationally also classified as having very high undergraduate enrollment.
A total of 516 faculty and professional staff served as principal investigators or co-investigators on competitive grant projects. There were 672 new grants or contracts awarded, totaling nearly $121 million, a 21% increase from the prior year. That funding will be expended over time frames ranging from months to years. Research expenditures in 2020-2021 directly supported more than 450 graduate students and more than 500 undergraduates.
Scholarship highlights from the past year include:
- An innovative radiation-tolerant spacecraft computing technology developed over the past decade by engineering researcher Brock LaMeres was scheduled for testing aboard a 2023 NASA mission to the moon.
- With $6 million from the Air Force Research Laboratory, engineering researcher John Roudas and his team are helping to pioneer the quantum internet, which harnesses the complex properties of light to improve speed and security.
- In the College of Education, Health and Human Development, Vanessa Simonds is leading a $1 million NSF-funded project to develop educational programs for improving water quality on the Crow Indian Reservation.
- A team led by Lee Spangler in MSU’s Energy Research Institute was awarded $3.5 million from the Army Research Lab to develop a new generation of batteries that can hold more power and charge faster while also being safer and more resilient to extreme environments.
- In the College of Nursing, a $50,000 grant is being used to expand dental care and health screenings to children on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation.
- Researchers in the College of Agriculture received $5.1 million from the U.S. Department of Energy to explore the food and biofuel potential of camelina, a multi-use oilseed crop similar to canola.
- With $3 million in renewed funding from the NSF, the Montana Nanotechnology Facility at MSU will continue providing cutting-edge equipment and technical assistance for research and development involving the ultra-small scale.
- A team led by physics researcher Amy Reines won a $750,000 NASA grant to study the origins of supermassive black holes, the mysterious masses that consume matter at the center of large galaxies.
- As part of a $500,000 NSF-funded project, a team of engineering researchers led by Chelsea Heveran is exploring the potential for fungi to make a recyclable concrete-like material.
- In the Jake Jabs College of Business and Entrepreneurship, a $3 million gift is helping to launch a new master’s program designed to provide professionals in early stages of their careers with skills that enable them to be more effective leaders, innovators and team members.
- Two MSU professors won the NSF’s top award for early-career researchers, carrying funding of $600,000 or more: computer science researcher Brittany Fasy studies method of finding patterns in complex datasets, and education researcher Bryce Hughes studies the experience of LGBTQ students in science, technology, engineering and math fields.
- With $300,000 from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, a team of researchers in the College of Agriculture and College of Education, Health and Human Development is studying how household food waste could be diverted from landfills and processed into biogas.
- A team led by computer science researcher Laura Stanley received $1.2 million from the NSF to explore the use of augmented reality devices to help treat opioid addiction.
- Chemistry researcher Michael Mock won a $475,000 NSF grant to study how new catalysts could use nitrogen in the air to store energy generated by solar panels and other sources.
Also among the funding MSU received during the past year were two grants totaling $1.5 million through NSF’s Major Research Instrumentation program, which supports acquisition of state-of-the-art scientific equipment. The two infrastructure grants enabled purchase of a specialized device for MSU’s Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Facility and a versatile, custom-made microscope housed in the Center for Biofilm Engineering, which was also supported with a $513,000 grant from the M.J. Murdoch Charitable Trust. Over the two-decade history of the NSF Major Research Instrumentation program, MSU has received 26 grants totaling $13.2 million, ranking it No. 1 among other peer institutions, ahead of Oregon State University, Virginia Tech and Clemson University.
This year's research funding and accomplishments have extra significance because they come amid the pandemic, Carter said. Although some universities almost entirely shut down their research operations with the rise of COVID-19 cases, MSU was able to put safety procedures in place that allowed researchers to mostly continue their projects. The effort to understand and contain the spread of the coronavirus also led to multiple MSU research teams retooling their labs to help.
“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.”
MSU research is well-known for its engagement of undergraduate students in research and is a national leader in securing prestigious Goldwater Scholarships. A total of 82 MSU students have won the award, the nation’s premier scholarship for undergraduates studying math, natural sciences and engineering. Also this year, three MSU graduates drew upon their undergraduate research experiences to win NSF Graduate Research Fellowships, and three current MSU graduate students also won that award. And numerous MSU graduate students and postdoctoral researchers won prestigious awards, including the Ford Fellowship.