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LANL showcases exploratory research

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By Roger Snodgrass

Some 90 exploratory research projects at Los Alamos National Laboratory had at least a few moments in the spotlight this week during two days of poster sessions and reviews.

Bob Kraus, the deputy director of the Laboratory Research and Development Program, oversees these relatively smaller research projects that are a reason many scientists and experimenters come to work at Los Alamos.

Under review during the “ER Poster Dayz” were the first year projects, expected to be off the ground by now and with something to show.

A quick browse through the two rooms of posters revealed a complex variety of examples.

Several proposed making use the laboratory’s new, fastest-in-the-world Roadrunner high performance computer, which will be available during the first months for unclassified projects.

Salman Habib was the principal investigator for a project on “The Roadrunner Universe.”

Another project supported Bette Korber’s Nobel-Prize-worthy quest for an HIV vaccine.

Alexander Friedland  continues the laboratory’s tradition of neutrino research with a project, “Probing physics beyond the Standard Model with Supernovae.”

And Sanjay Reddy has an analytic plan to pry into the densest state of matter in the universe inside a neutron star.

“There are a lot of really good projects,” Kraus said, explaining the nuts and bolts of the granting process. “Competition is fierce.”

The exploratory projects, which are typically funded at about $300,000 a year for three years can be contrasted with Directed Research projects, Kraus explained, which are bigger deals, costing about $1.25 million to $1.5 million annually.

Even the smaller grants are very difficult to snag the first time out because only 10-12 percent of the applications receive funding, a proportion that is comparable to the approval rate for grants at the National Institutes of Health.

Kraus said the exploratory researchers are more and more encouraged to give serious thought to how to “find a follow-on path” for funding.

“This well dries up after three years,” he said.

Toward that end, the LDRD program specifically invites program managers from the laboratory, as well as departmental managers on a national level to become acquainted with what these explorers are exploring.

“These are the projects that bring in the people who will work here,” he said.

And although they are inherently speculative projects, mostly dealing with basic science rather than applications, Kraus said the LDRD investments have seeded new projects that have equaled those expenditures.