Monitoring the pieces of broken-up rockets and other trash is challenging because scientists are never sure when a massive electromagnetic storm may sweep through the upper atmosphere, wreaking havoc on tracking equipment and requiring technicians to manually relocate pieces of the potentially destructive junk.
If scientists could achieve breakthroughs in forecasting this "space weather" and devise technologies to ease the chaos generated by solar winds, millions in taxpayer dollars would be saved annually, Utah State University physics professor Robert Schunk says.
"Now is the time to get in the field and get moving," says Schunk, who leads a team of scientists at USU's Center for Atmospheric and Space Sciences. "People are realizing space weather is causing problems in a number of industries."
His space weather team is one of eight groups of USU and University of Utah scientists vying for taxpayer money under the Utah Science, Technology and Research (USTAR) Initiative to explore commercial applications for their research. The Legislature authorized the USTAR Initiative two years ago to help commercialize university inventions. It allocated $15 million a year for the initiative with a promise to increase that figure to $25 million if the taxpayer investment produces tangible results.
The budget increase has yet to materialize. Lower-than-anticipated revenue led lawmakers to allocate just $2.5 million more to USTAR this year, even though observers say the initiative so far has exceeded expectations.
"We saw tons of great proposals. The problem is we can't fund them," USTAR executive director Ted McAleer says.
Success so far: USTAR was the brainchild of Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., who pushed the project to legislative leaders as a way to position Utah as a center for bio- and high-tech research.
To date, the initiative has hired 15 world-class faculty members to set up 11 research teams - three at USU and eight at the U. - covering four areas: biomedicine; brain science; energy; and imaging. The initiative also has set up five technology outreach centers to assist innovation-oriented companies. Two patents have been filed, three technologies have been licensed to Utah businesses, one business has been established and another has relocated.
"I thought if this were a race we would be completing lap one by now. USTAR is completing lap three," says House Majority Leader David Clark, R-Santa Clara, who sponsored the 2006 USTAR legislation." We are ahead of schedule in every facet."
New university mission: USTAR critics say they fear the initiative's potential to de-emphasize more traditional roles of academia, such as perpetuating cultural legacies and accumulating knowledge for its own sake.
But the U.'s College of Humanities Dean, Robert Newman, is not concerned USTAR's push to capitalize on intellectual property will skew the academic enterprise as long as the arts remain adequately supported.
In the USTAR spirit, his college is promoting interdisciplinary collaboration in an effort to join history, literature, language and cultural studies with scientific arenas.
"We are expecting to be beneficiaries of USTAR money," Newman says. "We think all boats rise with the tide."
If USTAR continues to get support from the state, it could attract $4.9 billion in research funding, McAleer told lawmakers earlier this year. Citing a 30-year projection by the U.'s Bureau of Economic and Business Research, he said full funding - $750 million - could help create 422 companies and 123,406 jobs and result in $5 billion in additional tax revenue.
University officials say the state investment in new hires and facilities will elevate their research environments across campus.
"We can offer colleagues a chance to do state-of-the-art research. It's a huge benefit for the entire community. Since [the new faculty] were successful at institutions we compete with, they bring us new knowledge about how to be better as an institution," says the U.'s Brain Institute director Tom Parks, also interim vice president for research.
Faculty the U. has recruited under USTAR are bringing millions in research grants with them, and at least two businesses are following one: nanotechnology wizard Marc Porter, recruited from Arizona State University last year to join the U.'s departments of chemistry and chemical engineering. The holder of 10 patents, Porter is developing biosensors using gold particles for early disease detection.
In addition, some $87 million in federal and industry grants follows researcher Brian McPherson from the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology to explore ways to lock power plant emissions underground.
Changing perspectives: USTAR's rapid installment of "all-star" faculty who work across disciplines with state-of-the-art facilities promises to affect departmental dynamics.
"Every time you hire new faculty, you bring one more into the family and it changes the conversation around the dinner table. We are convinced the changes will be terrific," U. President Michael Young says.
He emphasized the U. will not overemphasize research that can be more readily commercialized over basic research like that which over 20 years enabled Mario Cappechi to achieve breakthroughs in gene targeting that earned him a Nobel prize.
"USTAR will bring in revenue that will support basic science and support the humanities and social sciences," Young says. "I would be the first to admit that it can distort the mission of the U. You have to make sure it doesn't. We are committed to keeping that balance and improve the university across the board."
Focus on Utah's strengths: USTAR to date has focused its efforts on fields where Utah already leads, such as computer graphics, genetics and alternative fuels. It also has worked to bridge the "silos" academicians have tended to work in to promote collaboration, says USTAR board chairman Dinesh Patel.
"That has been the biggest transformation I've seen," says Patel, a pharmaceutical scientist who heads the biotech venture firm vSpring Capital.
USU's pioneering work in space weather would be a worthy candidate for USTAR funding, he said. "In the dot.com bust, we had technologies searching for a problem. Here we have a problem search for a technology."
A few weeks ago, five research teams, including Robert Schunk's, pitched research proposals to the USTAR board, each seeking around $1 million a year to pursue innovative ideas.
Schunk explained how the Department of Defense, his chief funder, spends $500 million a year to cope ineffectively with disturbances in the upper atmosphere. A technology that forecasts these events would allow affected industries to plan for the resulting shutdowns in communications and blackouts, such as the one that paralyzed parts of the Northeast after solar flares erupted off the sun in March 1989
"There are large currents that flow in the upper atmosphere. In geomagnetic storms, the currents intensify and that causes currents in the power grid to surge," Schunk says. "If they knew they were going to have a surge they could distribute their loads to other companies. They operate at 99 percent capacity to maximize efficiency. It's like walking with a bucket of water that is full."