Academic institutions benefit greatly from government funding. Nearly all high-level academic research, in fact, is funded by government grants and endowments.
In the Princeton area, the most directly symbiotic relationship between academe, the federal government, and commercial potential might lie in the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab, which lies just off Route 1 in Plainsboro. This is where scientists have long been at work on cracking one of science fiction’s greatest staples — fusion energy.
PPPL operates almost entirely by government contract, which is renewed every so often, under the management of Princeton University. The university has overseen PPPL for nearly 60 years, though it is owned by the Department of Energy. Last year the university won a five-year, $390 million contract to continue managing the lab and its research. In addition, the DOE last year awarded PPPL $19 million in federal stimulus money for the 2009/10 fiscal year.
“We would not exist in the absence of DOE support,” says PPPL director Stewart Prager. The lab does receive a modest amount of funding from other agencies, such as NASA, but almost all of its funding is from DOE and it is operated by DOE, Prager says. And even the non-DOE sources are still federal agencies.
Last year’s contract was up for grabs for the first time. Typically, PPPL has been the fortunate recipient of automatic funding, but in 2009 that was not the case. Since new contracts are not guaranteed, PPPL must continually show the DOE that its research is coming along.
It can be a delicate balancing act. Prager, who took over the lab in 2008, has stated that a fully operational fusion energy system will most likely not happen during his lifetime (see U.S. 1, July 23, 2008). So what progress there is to show requires an eye for practical scientific observation and futurist hope.
Prager had been the director of the Madison Symmetric Torus experiment at the University of Wisconsin, seeking to generate and harness near-thermonuclear plasmas reaching 10 million degrees.
He holds a joint bachelor’s in liberal arts from Queens College and electrical engineering from Columbia, which he received in 1970. He took over for Robert Goldston two years ago.
While PPPL is the alpha in the fusion research world, there are some small privately financed fusion enterprises out there. The lab collaborates with many universities, government, and private institutions. “Our collaborators are funded through various means,” Prager says.
Occasionally, PPPL helps other companies get off the ground. In 2001 Nova Photonics, which develops advanced plasma diagnostics for fusion, received a $50,000 SBIR bridge grant from the U.S. Navy to develop an optical filter for submarine communication
#b#Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory#/b#, Princeton University, Forrestal Campus, Princeton 08543-0451; 609-243-2000; fax, 609-243-2751. Stewart Prager, director. www.pppl.gov