The military wants academic researchers to explore how to emulate the explosive biological forces produced by organisms, such as frogs, when they jump.

The military wants academic researchers to explore how to emulate the explosive biological forces produced by organisms, such as frogs, when they jump.

Paul Tessler/iStockphoto

Pentagon funding program opens door to U.K. collaboration

A long-running Pentagon program that pumps about $250 million annually into U.S. universities for basic research is taking on an international flavor. This year, for the first time, the Department of Defense (DOD) formally encouraged U.S. applicants to partner with researchers from the United Kingdom in seeking grants from the Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative (MURI) program.

“Although international collaboration isn’t totally new to us … we decided it was time to formalize cooperation between the U.S. and the U.K.,” Robin Staffin, the director of DOD’s basic research office, recently told ScienceInsider. “There’s been a recognition at senior levels of government that this [international collaboration] is something we should try … to accelerate progress in some key research areas.”

Since it was founded in the mid-1980s, MURI has become a mainstay of DOD’s basic research programs, accounting for about one-quarter of the $1 billion in basic research funding that the Pentagon spends annually at U.S. universities. In some fields, including computer science, engineering research, and math, the military is now the dominant U.S. funder of fundamental science. Whereas many of DOD’s funding efforts focus on single-investigator grants, MURI aims to unite researchers from different disciplines and universities on a single project. When MURI began, Staffin says, “there was a perception that the new things were occurring not within the traditional university departmental areas, but in the intersection of traditional disciplines.”

In 2014, DOD made 24 new MURI awards totaling $167 million; this year, Staffin expects total U.S. funding to be about $145 million. Additional money, however, could come from the U.K. government for projects that involve universities in that nation working on three specific topics: quantum optics, laser-matter interactions at midinfrared wavelengths, and computer vision. “Should a joint U.S.-U.K. team win [a grant in those areas], then we will pay for the U.S. researchers, and U.K. will pay for U.K. researchers,” Staffin says.

The MURI awards so far, some 600, have proved “scientifically very productive,” concludes a recent review of the program by the Institute for Defense Analyses, a think tank based in Alexandria, Virginia. The typical MURI grant produces some 40 published papers, it found, which together get cited more than 1000 times. And although patenting isn’t a major goal of most MURI research efforts, about 25% of the projects ultimately generate an average of four patents each. And the IDA reviewers found academics like the grant structure, which now provides about $1.5 million per year for 3 to 5 years, because it “ensures a stable environment that gives researchers the freedom to take risks, be inventive and explore. The multi-year stability allows a diverse research team to develop and mature … It can also be used to develop a critical mass of experts.”

Each year, potential MURI topics are selected by each of DOD’s three main uniformed services: the Army, the Air Force, and the Navy and Marines. In 2015, for example, the services are looking for research teams to explore some 21 topics, including finding ways to emulate the explosive biological forces produced by organisms, such as frogs, fleas, and spiders, when they jump. Other topic areas include studying materials that form in temperatures above 2000°C, using quantum physics to create better computers, and studying how microbial communities may help host organisms respond to stress. The goal, Staffin says, is not just to fund “interesting basic research, but [projects that are] ready to step on the gas” and realize advancements in knowledge.

DOD reviewers are now examining the final MURI applications, which arrived on 23 February. The winners will be announced later this year.