Colorado State University shattered records for research expenditures this year, spending $447.2 million to acquire knowledge to protect people from disease, recover drought- and fire-ravaged communities, and respond to the climate emergency.
Total research expenditures grew by 10% in fiscal year 2020-21, more than triple the year-over-year rate of the previous fiscal year. Over the past five years, the university’s research expenditures have surged by 35%. Most of the funds come from the federal government, with significant contributions from state government, nonprofit groups and industry.
From behind the numbers emerges a portrait of CSU’s research endeavors expanding global reach and touching diverse topics. From engineering to behavioral sciences, medical research to sustainability, bio-cybersecurity to animal welfare, CSU researchers are advancing solutions to some of society’s biggest challenges while also revealing wondrous things about how the world works.
“The growth of our research enterprise is extraordinary – yet absolutely reflective of the scope and caliber of the research we do here at CSU, and the urgency with which we conduct it,” said President Joyce McConnell. “Our faculty, staff, graduate student and undergraduate researchers are focused on problems that need answers right now, and they are determined to make a positive, demonstrable impact with their work. That impact will be felt here in our own community, across the country and, in some cases, around the globe.”
COVID-19 expertise drives increase
The university’s big pivot to COVID-19 research has ranked it in the top 10 universities in the world working on research and cures related to the virus.
For example, CSU is developing a new, universal anti-coronavirus vaccine, SolaVAX™, capable of knocking out not only SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, but also its variants and other coronaviruses. Funded up to $15.5 million over five years by the National Institutes of Health, the SolaVAX research is in pre-clinical research and will move to Phase I human clinical trials to test the safety and immune response of the vaccine for SARS-CoV-2. Solaris Vaccines has licensed the SolaVAX technology to make vaccines for a broad range of diseases in addition to COVID-19. There are ongoing studies with influenza and tuberculosis vaccines using the SolaVAX technology platform.
A $2 million gift by The Anschutz Foundation will help CSU and other universities develop new ways to prevent disease transmission between people and animals, and accelerate innovations related to pandemic disease, with a focus on preparedness and planning, countermeasures and therapeutics.
Dr. Izabela Ragan, a CSU veterinary scientist, has been among those working on the anti-coronavirs vaccine SolaVAX™. Photo by Ron Bend
Alternative water sources for agriculture
CSU scientists are exploring new water sources for agriculture by tapping non-traditional sources, such as municipal wastewater, seawater and brackish water, among others. CSU is a founding partner in a $110 million U.S. Department of Energy research network called the National Alliance for Water Innovation, and the research is ongoing. It’s important to help feed a world with a population expected to exceed 10 billion by 2050.
Researchers in CSU’s Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology are exploring how a tiny protein in the brain, cofilin, could be the key to understanding the development of dementia associated with neuro-degenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s. The protein is important for synaptic connections in the brain, and disruption of its normal function may result in the loss of memory development and learning functions.
Elsewhere at CSU, researchers use drones to better inspect old bridges in need of repair. There’s a study underway looking at the effects of electronic cigarettes on viral infections. Scientists published research showing substantial greenhouse gas emissions associated with indoor marijuana cultivation, part of the $13 billion U.S. cannabis industry. CSU researchers also discovered an elegant, new form of lasso-like locomotion that propels brown tree snakes to greater heights of predation as an invasive species in Guam.
Microbes in the air
Researchers working with CSU’s One Health Institute received $12.5 million from the National Science Foundation to explore fundamental details about microbes that live in the air, or the aerobiome. Fires, pandemics and dust storms can shape this little-known microbial world surrounding us.
“The health of animals, plants, humans and the environment are undoubtedly dependent upon the function of this invisible community,” said Dr. Sue VandeWoude, principal investigator for the project, director of the One Health Institute and a University Distinguished Professor at CSU.
Alan Rudolph, vice president of research, says CSU’s research is expanding to new frontiers of science and places.
“Expanding our research impact contributes significantly to our land-grant mission of lifelong learning and discovery that benefits Colorado and translates well to impacts across borders,” Rudolph said.
In ongoing or recent research, CSU researchers work to help control air pollution in Mexico, advance sustainable energy in Rwanda, improve market access for small farms in Guatemala and forecast hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean. A research team at the Center for Vector-Borne Infectious Diseases made a novel discovery of Zika virus RNA in free-ranging bats in Uganda.
And yet, the university remains strongly moored to its land-grant mission, sharing knowledge and collaborating with Colorado and Rocky Mountain communities. That commitment manifests in robust extension and rural development services, cutting-edge research in areas pertinent to the private sector, and programs that help make the world safer and more sustainable.
For example, CSU Extension is actively working with communities hard hit by drought, wildfires and pandemic. The goal is to help communities better prepare, respond to and recover from disasters. Across Colorado’s plains, CSU Extension experts also work with ranchers to improve pasture productivity and wildlife diversity.
The new CSU Spur campus in Denver represents CSU’s commitment to making knowledge accessible and practical to lift up communities. The three new science-themed buildings – Vida, Terra and Hydro – are opening in 2022 and will bring science and the arts to the public, showcasing solutions to challenges in human and animal health, food and water.
The surge in CSU research expenditures was propelled in part by gains at the Warner College of Natural Resources, where expenditures increased 6.5% over the previous year to $146 million. Issues such as climate change, wildfires and sustainability help account for the increase. The Center for Environmental Management on Military Lands accounts for much of the college’s research spending.
Across the institution, CSU awards for COVID-19 research totaled $35.5 million, of which $21.8 million in expenditures have been incurred since the start of the pandemic. In one instance, CSU developed its own coronavirus test availed by 25,000 people, with 200,000 samples collected to protect the campus community.
“Our COVID-19 research impacts started in our backyard on campus and extended to national impacts,” Rudolph said. “It is a great example of how our land-grant mission steps up to the historic challenges of our day.”
At the intersection of arts and science, a CSU research team determined how far airborne particles and droplets are spread by musicians playing wind or brass instruments, in addition to singers, actors and dancers, as well as ways to protect audiences from coronavirus.
Also, in response to the pandemic, CSU conducted COVID-19 testing of workers and residents in around 30 skilled nursing facilities in Colorado to help prevent outbreaks, monitor the risk of exposure for residents, and help recovered workers return to work. The joint project between CSU and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment is an initiative of the COVID-19 Residential Care Task Force.
CSU is classified as having “very high research activity” by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education. About 84% of CSU research funds come from the federal government, and the rest comes from other sources.