Iowa State sets new record for external research funding in FY2019

By Dan Kirkpatrick, Office of the Vice President for Research

$260.9 million tops previous record of $252.5 million in FY2016

Iowa State University closed the 2019 fiscal year achieving a new record for external research funding – $260.9 million. This surpasses the previous milestone of $252.5 million established in FY2016, reaffirming the university’s long-standing position as a leading land-grant research institution.

Iowa State set new standards for both federal and non-federal external research funding. The $181.1 million in federal funding received in FY19 was 6.3% higher than last year’s total of $170.3, and broke the previous record of $174.8 million set in FY16. Non-federal external research funding for FY19 was $79.8 million – 5.8% greater than last year, and 2.7% more than the previous record established in FY16.

“The record-high external research funding the university achieved in FY19 directly reflects the value our sponsors place on our faculty’s focused, purposeful approach to research,” said Sarah Nusser, Iowa State’s vice president for research. “Whether it’s foundational or translational, sponsors understand the research performed by Iowa State answers fundamental questions and delivers solutions to the challenges we face within the state, across the nation and around the world.”

Federal research funding

Much of the new milestone in federal research funding achieved by Iowa State in FY19 can be traced to significant growth in investments from the Department of Energy (DOE) and Health and Human Services (HHS)/National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Most of the substantial increase in DOE funds went to support projects conducted at Ames Laboratory, a DOE Office of Science National Laboratory located on the Iowa State campus. Ames Lab – which has a long-standing history of collaboration with Iowa State – received $51.6 million from DOE in FY18. DOE funding in FY19 totaled $87.7 million, with $83 million allocated to Ames Lab. A large portion of this increase in funding is attributed to the Critical Materials Institute (CMI) receiving two fiscal years of funding – approximately $50 million total – in FY19. CMI’s mission is to help assure supply chains of materials, such as rare earth elements, that are vital to many modern technologies, from consumer electronics and computers to advanced transportation.

Iowa State faculty also earned significant DOE grants for Ames Lab projects outside of the scope of CMI. For instance, Robert McQueeney, professor in the department of Physics & Astronomy was awarded $1.4 million in DOE Energy Frontier Research Center Funds to support exploration of topological semimetals – quantum materials that hold great potential for technological applications that involve superconducting and semiconducting. In addition, Aaron Sadow, professor in the Department of Chemistry, received $1.1 million for his group’s research of new catalytic reactions and catalysts for applications in green chemistry to convert abundant bio-based raw materials into commodity and specialty chemicals.

Iowa State’s funding growth from HHS and NIH over the past five years has been steady and significant. The university was awarded $9.2 million during the 2015 fiscal year. The final FY19 tally of $18.6 million is more than double the amount received in FY15, and represents a 27.3% increase over FY18. Much of this expanded investment is tied to research involving new technologies for nanovaccines, combating antimicrobial resistance and genome editing. Notable research project awards from NIH for FY2019 include:

  • $1.3 million to Balaji Narasimhan, distinguished professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering, to support translational nanovaccine research around the Influenza A virus (IAV). You’ll find more information on this project in the grand challenges section below;
  • $913,730 to Jeffery Essner, professor in the department of Genetics, Development and Cell Biology for his project Development of Tools for Site-Directed Analysis of Gene Function, focused on identifying genes that can promote or restore human health.
  • $617,000 to Qijing Zhang, distinguished professor and endowed chair in Veterinary Medicine, to support his project, Emerging Multidrug Resistance Mechanisms in CampylobacterCampylobacter jejuniis a major pathogen that is responsible for more than 400 million cases of diarrhea in humans each year worldwide. Both CDC and WHO have listed antibiotic-resistant Campylobacteras a “serious antibiotic resistance threat.” The long-term goal of the work done by Zhang and his team is to curtail the emergence and spread of antibiotic-resistant Campylobacterand other bacterial pathogens

Non-federal research funding

The unprecedented support Iowa State received in non-federal funding in FY19 – $79.8 million – reinforces the university’s position and reputation as a valued research partner to industry, commodity organizations, non-profits and other higher-education institutions.

Four key non-federal funding segments in which Iowa State registered significant increases in 2019 are:

  • Industry/Corporate, which saw a 6.1% increase in funding from $21.7 million in FY18 to $23 million in FY19;
  • Commodity Organizations, where research funding grew from $5.2 million in FY18 to just under $7 million in FY19, a 35.7% increase;
  • Nonprofit Organizations, where the $14.4 million in research funding was the second-highest total in the past five years and U.S.-based nonprofit funding achieved a new five-year high; and
  • Higher Education, which registered a 29.1% increase from just under $11.3 million in 2018 to $14.6 million in 2019.

Among industry and corporate partners, Iowa State garnered research funding from 187 companies during the 2019 fiscal year – 41 more than the 146 companies that partnered with the university in fiscal year 2018. Twenty-eight of the 187 companies are headquartered – or have a significant presence – in the state, and 10 reside in the ISU Research Park.

Deere & Company was Iowa State’s single largest industry/corporate research sponsor in FY19. The company increased its investment by 12.6% from FY18. The majority of Deere’s funding is tied directly to projects conducted and overseen by Matthew Darr, professor in the Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering Department and administrative leader of Iowa State’s BioCentury Research Farm. Most of the projects on which Darr and his team are collaborating with Deere focus on enhancing the productivity and efficiency of agriculture through research and innovation in areas that include precision agriculture, telematics data analytics and next-generation machinery automation.

A signficant portion of the funding in the Nonprofit segment in FY19 came from the Roy J. Carver Charitable Trust of Muscatine, Iowa, through the Iowa State University Foundation. The Carver Trust committed more than $3.5 million to advance the second phase of the Iowa State University Roy J. Carver Department of Biochemistry, Biophysics and Molecular Biology’s Initiative in Biomolecular Structure and enable the purchase of a state-of-the-art cryo-transmission electron microscope equipped with a direct electron detector. The initiative is being led by Amy Andreotti, Roy J. Carver Chair of Biochemistry, Biophysics and Molecular Biology, and Dipali Sashital, assistant professor of biochemistry. Cryo-EM is considered, far and away, the best method for enhancing understanding of structural biology. The insights from cryo-EM imagery will play a vital role in helping Iowa State researchers break down barriers in treating disease, developing better crops, and engineering sophisticated nanomaterials.

The 29.1% funding increase in the Higher Education segment reinforces Iowa State’s position as a valued collaborator for other research universities. Two of the more notable awards from FY19 underscore Iowa State’s research commitment to exploring new solutions to the grand challenge of building sustainable human and natural ecosystems:

  • More than $1.2 million in DOE funding from the University of Illinois for the Center for the Advanced Bioenergy and Bioproducts Innovation project spearheaded by Andy VanLoocke, assistant professor, Agronomy; and
  • $777,256 in USDA funding from the University of Florida supporting the project SmartPath: Grower-directed Convergence of Nanotechnology and Smart Decision Analytics for Irrigation Water Quality Management Related to Pathogens, led by Eliot Winer, associate professor, Mechanical Engineering.

Iowa State continues to be a valued research partner for state and national commodity groups, despite the significant challenges of today’s agricultural economy. Some of the uptick in Commodity funding can be attributed to collaborations with the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR). FFAR builds unique public-private partnerships – matching every federal dollar with private funding – to support innovative science that addresses today’s food and agricultural challenges. The university as a whole received $4.5 million from FFAR through these public-private partnerships in FY19.

A notable example of FFAR collaboration is the National Pork Board’s award of just under $2 million in FY19 to support the Integrated Approach to Improve Whole Herd Pig Survivability research effort. Jason Ross, associate professor of Animal Science, is spearheading this project to identify solutions for improving herd health in the nation’s pork production operations.

Finally, the investment in research in the Biosciences at Iowa State continues to build momentum, from federal sources such as NIH and DOE, and non-federal such as Deere and the Carver Trust. Governor Kim Reynolds has identified the Biosciences as a key growth engine for Iowa’s economy. Iowa State is uniquely positioned to lead in three of the four key Bioscience categories identified by Governor Reynolds – Biobased Products and Chemicals, Precision and Digital Agriculture and Vaccines and Immunotherapeutics. The university is committed to working in partnership with the Iowa Innovation Corporation, which serves as the Iowa Bioscience Development Center, to establish nationally renowned innovation ecosystems in each of the Iowa-advantaged Bioscience platforms to help the state continue to grow and diversify its economy.

Research that focuses on society’s grand challenges

Iowa State and the university’s faculty are committed to purposeful research, whether it’s foundational research that contributes the building blocks to greater exploration and understanding, or translational research that directly leads to new innovations and technologies that benefit society. The purpose that drives most research at Iowa State is defined by grand societal challenges that are a core component of the university strategic plan. Many projects within the institution are shaped and framed to address at least one of these challenge themes:

  • Promoting healthy lives (plants, animals, people, communities)
  • Building sustainable human and natural ecosystems
  • Designing next-generation materials and manufacturing technologies
  • Enabling data-driven discovery and secure cyber systems
  • Developing global citizens and vibrant societies

Iowa State received external funding for more than 1,300 research projects during the 2019 fiscal year. Here are just a handful of examples of how the research conducted at the university is helping find solutions to these grand challenges for the betterment of our state, our nation and our world.

Healthy lives:

Researchers at Iowa State’s Nanovaccine Institute, led by Balaji Narasimhan, distinguished professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering, seek to combat the global public health threat of the influenza A virus (IAV) by developing a new universal vaccine that will produce broadly neutralizing antibodies; build durable, IAV-specific cell immunity in the lungs; protect against two IAV strains; and require no refrigeration to maintain the vaccine’s quality. Through a series of studies, funded by NIH, Narasimhan and his team intend to develop a lead nanovaccine that will be the foundation for future human clinical trials. Unlike current vaccines, nanovaccines are based on tiny particles that send pathogen-like signals to immune cells. In short, nanovaccines can prevent disease with lower cost, better safety and improved efficacy.

“The disease severity caused by IAV, the associated economic costs and the recent appearance of novel IAV strains and/or variants underscore an urgent need to develop novel and efficacious ‘universal’ IAV vaccines,” Narasimhan said. “The proposed studies will lead to a final product that will meet the National Institutes of Health’s characterization of a protective universal IAV vaccine and provide important first steps for translating our findings to human clinical trials.”


Gabriel Lade, assistant professor of Economics, and Jacqueline Comito, program director of Iowa Learning Farms, an Iowa State University Extension and Outreach program, are leading a diverse team of social and agricultural scientists to help Iowa – and the nation – better understand rural households’ drinking water patterns and pollution avoidance behaviors. Through funding from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), the team will conduct household surveys throughout the state and create multi-faceted extension and education programming. The project will work to improve rural Iowans’ knowledge of drinking water challenges and solutions in the state, while also increasing community involvement in water quality projects.

“We understand very little about rural household drinking water patterns, pollution avoidance behavior, and rural individuals’ willingness to pay for pollution information,” Lade said. “This project aims to fill this knowledge gap. We hope that the results will guide effective policymaking for rural water-quality programs throughout the United States.”

“What excites me about this project is that we plan to use the research to create a multi-faceted extension and education program to improve knowledge and awareness of drinking water challenges and solutions that can be used throughout the Midwest,” Comito said. “Small behavioral changes, such as yearly testing of well water, could lead to safer drinking water in rural households.”

Materials and manufacturing:

In conjunction with the institutional and industry partners associated with the National Concrete Pavement Technology (CPTech) Center, based at Iowa State University, Peter Taylor, research associate professor in Civil, Construction and Environmental Engineering, is working to refine and implement new methods to improve the performance, safety and cost effectiveness of concrete pavement used by state departments of transportation and local agencies.

“At the CPTech Center, we’re excited to work with the Federal Highway Administration to provide the concrete paving community with the latest available guidance on how to design, build, maintain and recycle concrete pavements nationwide,” Taylor said. “Our goal is to help state departments of transportation — including Iowa’s — ensure that their critical infrastructure is affordable and long lasting. We’ll achieve this by collecting information on the latest technologies, developing guidance on how to use them, and then using innovative communication techniques to help the younger generation of practitioners apply these best practices in the field.”

Data-driven discovery:

Heather Rouse and Cassandra Dorius are assistant professors of Human Development and Family Studies at Iowa State. They are collaborating with Early Childhood Iowa cross-department leadership in developing an integrated administrative data system for policy analysis to support care and education for young children (birth through age 5) and their families. Evidence from research using this system will inform program quality improvement for vulnerable children through a collaborative approach involving statewide stakeholders across education, health and human services departments. This study is sponsored by the Iowa Department of Management.

“Finding affordable, high-quality care for young children is a significant challenge, particularly in Iowa where we have disproportionate numbers of families with both parents in the workforce. While policymakers and program leaders understand there is a problem, they have insufficient information about who is most affected, where services are disconnected or where there are opportunities to generate cross-system approaches,” Rouse said. “The unprecedented collaboration we have with Early Childhood Iowa statewide stakeholders is addressing these service gaps by providing leaders with more comprehensive information to inform better decision-making and strategic planning.”

Global Citizens:

Shana Carpenter, associate professor of Psychology, is leading a team of university collaborators who are investigating how principles from the science of learning can be implemented within educational practice to improve its effectiveness. Their objective has its roots in a collaborative activity grant – Implementing Principles from the Science of Learning within Educational Practice – awarded by the James S. McDonnell Foundation. The team will adapt and optimize science-of-learning principles for different learners, materials, learning objectives and other factors. At the same time, they will anticipate potential barriers to implementation and determine how to overcome them. When possible, Carpenter and the team will focus on those areas with the greatest potential impact.

“This research helps us understand how people learn, and how to make learning more efficient and durable,” Carpenter said. “Using these evidence-based principles within educational settings can positively impact student achievement and give students the tools they need to successfully manage and regulate their own learning.”

Faculty research recognitions

Through the years, Iowa State University faculty members have routinely won highly competitive national research awards and grants. The 2019 fiscal year continued this streak of excellence, with numerous faculty members earning prestigious early-career recognitions from both federal and private sources.

The National Science Foundation established the CAREER award to support promising junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through research, education and the integration of education and research within the context of their respective organizations. The award comes with a federal grant for research and education activities for five consecutive years.

In FY19, NSF granted CAREER awards to seven Iowa State faculty to support research projects ranging from synthesis of new ultrathin semiconductor materials, to advanced computational performance, to building robust machine-learning techniques and improving the resiliency of our electric power network. This year’s winners include:

  • Robbyn Anand, assistant professor, Chemistry
  • Mohan Gupta, assistant professor, Genetics, Development and Cell Biology
  • Brett Vanveller, assistant professor, Chemistry
  • Leifur Leifsson, assistant professor, Aerospace Engineering
  • Soumik Sarkar, assistant professor, Mechanical Engineering
  • Matthew Panthani, assistant professor, Chemical and Biological Engineering
  • Alice Alipour, assistant professor, Civil, Construction and Environmental Engineering

Private foundations also have awards in place to support the research and teaching careers of outstanding young faculty. These Iowa State faculty members won prestigious early-career recognitions from private foundations in FY19:

  • Dipali Sashital, assistant professor in the Roy J. Carver Department of Biochemistry, Biophysics and Molecular Biology, was named a Camile Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar; and
  • Robbyn Anand, assistant professor in the Chemistry, was recognized as a Cottrell Scholar by the Research Corporation for Science Advancement.

Iowa State University external research funding sources for FY2019

Department of Commerce: $4.2 million
Department of Defense: $5 million
Department of Energy: $87.7 million
Department of Transportation: $2.8 million
Health and Human Services: $18.6 million
National Science Foundation: $33.5 million
Department of Agriculture: $23.6
Other Federal: $5.7
Federal Subtotal: $181.1 million

Commodity: $7 million
Industry/Corporate: $23 million
Higher Education: $14.6 million
State of Iowa Government: $19.2 million
Nonprofit Organizations: $14.4
Other Non-Federal: $1.6 million
Non-Federal Subtotal: $79.8 million

FY19 total external research funding: $260.9 million