$2 million awarded to UC Berkeley engineering group to conduct research

Nicole White/Staff

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A campus engineering group was awarded $2 million from the National Science Foundation, according to an announcement from Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, on Thursday.

The grant recipients are part of the Zhang Lab, led by UC Berkeley professor of mechanical engineering Xiang Zhang. The researchers will use the $2 million grant to help fund a project in which they will build devices at the nanometer scale and exploit the electronic and optical properties of two-dimensional materials.

By using new techniques to control quantum mechanical behavior of electrons, such as manipulating how electrons behave with light photons in two-dimensional materials, the researchers are attempting to improve high-speed data communications and low-power electronics, according to the project’s description.

The project also collaborates with other campus programs that try to increase the recruitment and training of underrepresented and female student-scientists and engineers.

While $2 million may seem like a mighty stipend to the everyday college student, comparatively, the grant is one of the federal government’s more modest gifts. According to Gina Daly, UC Berkeley director of federal relations, the federal government funnels millions into the campus each year to help encourage research at UC Berkeley.

Daly said the campus, composed of thousands of faculty and researchers, usually draws from multiple sources of funding to help support research endeavors, but more than half of all the moneys funneled into research projects come from the federal government.

In the fiscal year ending June 30, the campus received $691.1 million to help fund multiyear projects and related expenditures. About $380 million of that amount is from the federal government.

The NSF, NASA and the National Institutes of Health are the largest contributors of federal funding for campus research.

“A lot of people don’t know that we get a lot of support for the campus through state government, which is mostly going to students,” Daly said. “A lot of the research on campus comes from federal funding, but it comes from the faculty, who are the ones sitting down and deciding what research they want to do.”

The foundation receives about 50,000 research proposals every year, according to its website, but can only support a fraction of the applicants. Through a process of merit review, the foundation determines which research projects have the greatest potential to best invest taxpayer dollars into and promote scientific discovery.

After applicants prepare their proposals and submit them over a 90-day period, the foundation assembles a panel of peer reviewers, who analyze and evaluate the grant proposals over a six-month period.

An NSF program officer assesses their reviews and recommends which proposals should be awarded. Once the awards are processed, the foundation analyzes any potential business or policy effects from granting the awards and then notifies the recipients. The process lasts about six to eight months.

“The panel of experts tries to make sure that we’re using federal money in the best possible way,” Daly said. “We have the greatest minds in the country giving grants to the best ideas.”

Bo Kovitz is the city news editor. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @beau_etc.