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Vying for stimulus

WSU, UI seeking millions of federal dollars for projects

Area universities are submitting hundreds of applications for millions of federal dollars to be handed out over the next two years through the Obama administration stimulus package.

Washington State University alone is seeking more than $300 million of the $787 billion set aside by Congress in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

At least $21 billion of the stimulus funds is earmarked for research and development.

Among WSU’s more than 135 proposals is a $36 million request to develop a commercial system to produce aviation biofuels. That project would be undertaken in tandem with Boeing Corp. and researchers from the University of Washington.

If approved, one production site would be built in the Puget Sound area and a second would be built outside the Northwest, said John Gardner, WSU vice president for economic development.

Another $10 million WSU project to be based in the Tri-Cities would create a pilot power generation plant using biofuels derived from municipal green waste combined with crop seeds.

Neither proposal has been approved for stimulus funding yet.

The University of Idaho has submitted more than 30 proposals that could generate $25 million.

With deadlines for stimulus funds stretching into the fall, “We are extremely busy coordinating a massive amount of activity,” said Howard Grimes, WSU vice president for research and dean of the graduate school.

WSU officials say they’d be ecstatic to receive close to one-fifth of their requests. Typically about 10 percent of grants are funded at the federal level. Grants will be announced at different points over the next several months.

If the money comes, WSU expects to retain or create more than 300 jobs. That number doesn’t count jobs created by private companies involved in some research projects. The UI projects would affect about 200 jobs.

Federal stimulus dollars generally can’t be used to plug staffing holes or reinstate teaching jobs cut in recent layoffs.

But they can be spent on hiring and retaining scientists, technicians and graduate students.

“Much of the funding that WSU will receive will be used to hire more graduate students and technicians, thereby adding to the economy of our region,” Grimes said.

Many of the research proposals are for projects not funded in recent years, Grimes said.

Some would pay for improved or new campus research facilities. That reflects the federal belief that improved labs are a key part of the economic recovery, said John McIver, UI’s vice president for research.

Other projects are wider in reach, including efforts with private companies. The aviation fuel project includes Boeing, the University of Washington, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, and at least two regional firms that are trying to produce biofuels.

The federal spigot has opened just as area schools face severe budget cuts stemming from declines in state revenues. McIver said the funding is a “flash flood” of dollars, meaning in two years the flow of federal money will shut down. “The goal is to increase capacity and use the dollars to give you a competitive advantage,” he said.

After the dollars turn to a trickle in two years, McIver said, schools and researchers will have to adjust again to tighter budgets.