Quelling economic turmoil

Author: Linda Thomas Terhune
In 2005, with concern mounting about the eroding strength of the American science and technology enterprise, a task force was convened by the National Academies of Science and Engineering. The Committee on Prospering in the Global Economy of the 21st Century prepared a report containing recommendations on how to reverse the perceived decline. It was published in 2007 under the title, Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future.

“Our crisis,” the committee reported, “is not the result of a one-dimensional change. … And we have no single awakening event, such as Sputnik. The United States is instead facing problems that are developing slowly but surely, each like a tile in a mosaic. None by itself seems sufficient to provoke action.”

Within a year, the gathering storm broke as financial crisis gripped the United States and reverberated around the world. But in the midst of the global economic crisis, science and engineering—around the world—may have found a safe harbor.

In reaction to flagging economies, governments from the United States to Japan to China have enacted stimulus packages designed to counteract financial collapse. While the details of individual packages may differ, they share a focus on engineering and science as a means of stimulating economic growth.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, signed into law in February by President Barack Obama, devotes a portion of its $787 billion stimulus dollars to funding for engineering and science research, in addition to significant investment in infrastructure. Japan’s 15 trillion yen ($150 billion) stimulus package aims to position that country as the world’s top generator of solar power and most environment-friendly car industry with mass production of electric cars within three years. China’s ¥4 trillion ($586B) stimulus package promises to improve infrastructure by upgrading the power grid, building 90 new airports, adding railway lines and freeways, making environmental improvements, and instituting agricultural conservation technologies such as smart (drip) irrigation.

In the face of international demand for innovation, the College of Engineering is leveraging its expertise to help developed and developing nations pull through the crisis and find solutions, from partnering with industry to fill research voids; devising more efficient and economical ways to produce energy, medicine, and vehicles; and creating affordable solutions for the challenges faced by developing nations.

In May, industry and science leaders from around the world gathered in Jordan at the World Economic Forum on the Middle East to discuss “Implications of the Global Economic Crisis for the Middle East: Home-grown Strategies for Success.” Among the attendees, by invitation, was Rabi Mohtar, director of Purdue’s Global Engineering Program (GEP) and a water specialist. Mohtar returned from the forum with a clear view of the role that Purdue can play in responding to global need.

“World leaders agree that in these uncertain times, engineering innovation plays a vital role in jumpstarting economic development in key areas such as energy, water, food, health care, and information technology. Purdue Engineering is well positioned to offer expertise in these areas,” Mohtar says. “Specifically, we can offer assistance in deploying science-based tools to help better manage the economic as well as the environmental engines of our society, and set goals, strategies and metrics to achieve these goals.”

The changing international financial climate is opening many doors to research and creative partnerships with industry at home and abroad. George Wodicka, head of the Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering, believes support for novel technologies and engineering approaches to important problems in clinical medicine will continue to grow in the United States beyond the two-year stimulus window and will include private sources.

Among the innovative partnerships will be an increased number of interdisciplinary research efforts with extramural partners. The Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering and the Indiana University School of Medicine are currently engaged in such a relationship on a quest for novel solutions to global healthcare problems. The solutions, Wodicka says, will range from computerized health information systems to implantable devices that provide long-term therapy. Some of the funding, he hopes, will come from medical device and biotechnology companies as part of their research and development efforts.

As industry slows, engineering research grows

Industry partners are a vital part of the college’s support network. At 25 percent of the research support total in 2008, industry and foundations were the college’s largest funding source. This compares with 16 percent from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and 15 percent from National Institutes of Health, the second and third largest sources of research funds. Despite the current economic climate, the college’s relationship with industry is likely to improve fiscally and in the number of new partners.

As industry feels the economic pinch, it is cutting back on internal research and looking to partner with universities that can provide expertise and specialized equipment. This symbiotic relationship is already in place in the College of Engineering with Rolls-Royce and the School of Aeronautics and Astronautics partnering in the High Mach Propulsion University Technology Center; and the School of Materials Engineering reaching to steel companies and others through its new Center for Metal Casting Research.

On an international level, a variety of programs offer students and faculty the opportunity to share their expertise with industry and society. The Global Engineering Alliance for Research and Education program places undergraduates in work-study programs with industry around the world. GEP supports international engagement through student and faculty research such as a student design team project in Cameroon with the African Centre for Renewable Energy & Sustainable Technology (ACREST). Projects with ACREST will focus on energy generation and efficiency, and transportation, both of which will translate into positive economic impact.

“Energy is vital for economic development, poverty reduction, and sustainable human development,” says Isaac Zama of ACREST. “The partnership between Purdue and ACREST is focused on small but very useful technologies that are affordable, reliable, and can be maintained by folks in rural areas without the need to always rely on foreign experts.”

Whether helping develop affordable transportation in Cameroon or streamlining healthcare processes, students and faculty in the College of Engineering will continue to make valuable contributions to global economies and societies, despite the economic crisis.

Large-scale research for large-scale answers

Purdue’s vast reserve of engineering expertise will answer the call for help in many areas. Among the large-scale research efforts currently under way are:

• The $17M NNSA Center for the Prediction of Reliability, Integrity and Survivability of Microsystems (PRISM), led by Jayathi Murthy, the Robert V. Adams Professor of Mechanical Engineering. The objective of the PRISM center is to significantly accelerate the integration of micro-electro-mechanical systems technologies into stockpile monitoring and weapons systems through the use of predictive, validated science and petascale computing.

• The Center of Excellence for Command, Control and Interoperability, a six-year, $15M multi-university effort, led by David Ebert of electrical and computer engineering and funded by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

• The $20M Energy Frontier Research Center (EFRC) for Direct Catalytic Conversion of Biomass to Biofuels (C3Bio), which includes professors Rakesh Agrawal, Nick Delgass, and Fabio Ribeiro of the School of Chemical Engineering (ChE) and is led by Maureen McCann of the Department of Biological Sciences.

• The Institute for Atom-Efficient Chemical Transformations (IACT), another EFRC that will be led by Argonne National Laboratory and focus on efficient chemical pathways for the conversion of coal and biomass into chemicals and fuels. Chemical engineering faculty Chelsey Baertsch, Nick Delgass, and Fabio Ribeiro are on this team.

• The Solar Economy NSF IGERT work of chemical engineering professors Rakesh Agrawal and Hugh Hillhouse.

• The Department of Transportation NEXTRANS: Integrated Solutions for Mobility, Safety and Infrastructure Renewal Center, a $6M, three-year effort led by Srinivas Peeta of civil engineering that focuses on advancing U.S. technology and expertise in the many disciplines comprising transportation.

• The NSF Engineering Research Center for Compact and Efficient Fluid Power, led by Monika Ivantysynova, MAHA Professor Fluid Power Systems in the School of Mechanical Engineering and Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering. Research focuses on making compact and energy-efficient fluid power systems. It is supported by the NSF with a five-year, $15M award, and is in collaboration with the University of Minnesota (lead institution), the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Georgia Tech, Vanderbilt University, Milwaukee School of Engineering, and North Carolina A&T.

• The NSF Network for Computational Nanotechnology (NCN), led by Gerhard Klimeck, professor of electrical and computer engineering. Collaborating institutions include the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Northwestern University, University of Florida, University of Texas at El Paso, and Clemson University. It has been renewed for an additional five years, with a funding of $18.65M. NCN develops models and simulation tools to predict behavior at the device, circuit, and system level for nanoelectronics, nanoelectromechanics, and nanobio systems.

These centers, and others, are a good fit with the demands of the U.S. stimulus package and its attention to infrastructure, energy, and healthcare. They are also good for global need during a time of economic downturn.

“This is an extremely unique opportunity for Purdue,” says Richard Buckius, the University’s vice president for research and a mechanical engineering professor. “With our strengths in energy, environment, security, cyberinfrastructure, STEM education, and life and health sciences, Purdue couldn’t be better placed.”

Purdue President France A. Córdova, who sits on the National Science Board, the 24-member governing body of the NSF, will keep her finger on the pulse of the national and global activities of the science community. She is also bringing Purdue directly into the arena with a new Public Policy Institute that will provide informed research and scholarship to national policy discussions, including such topics as energy, the environment, global climate change, science education, food safety and security, and healthcare science, all areas in which engineers are vital players.

Astronaut Mark Polansky (BS and MSAAE ’78) offered a wide view of the importance of engineering and science as he prepared last spring to head into space for the third time. (See related article on page 26.) He reflected on the new role that these disciplines might play in a culture that seems to be changing orientation from big money and corporate greed to one more focused on solving global grand challenges. Polansky, commander of the space shuttle Endeavour mission that was slated for a June launch but delayed into July, spoke of the crisis on Wall Street, the importance of engineering and science, and what he hopes is a changing mindset

“Maybe this big economic downturn, in retrospect, will have been a great thing for us. I think that a lot of kids have gone to college with the idea of coming out with a big paycheck. When you come to work at a place like NASA, though, you see how cool it is to work where you won’t get rich. No other entity is talking about putting people back on the moon or going to Mars,” he said. “If you want to make a difference in society, the technical arena is where you can play a tremendous role.”