It's easy for Sara Wilson to see that her research makes a difference in people's lives.
Wilson, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Kansas University, studies lower back pain, which affects 50 percent to 80 percent of people and costs Americans an estimated $25 billion to $100 billion per year.
Specifically, she's working on a project funded by the National Institutes of Health to determine why the vibrations in semitrailers cause drivers to have back pain, and what they might do to alleviate it. She also works to develop lifting techniques to minimize back pain.
"The fact is this does help people and can change the incidence of injury," Wilson said. "I don't think I'll end all lower back pain, but I might help get it reduced a little bit."
Wilson's project is one of more than 2,000 research projects under way on KU's Lawrence campus. KU's research has been booming in recent years, with research expenditures -- the amount of grants spent on projects -- almost doubling since 1996.
In the fiscal year that ended June 30, KU researchers spent $243 million on research, up 8.4 percent from the previous year. Totals for the most recent fiscal year won't be available until later this fall.
"There's money available, and we've gone and gotten it at a rate faster than the rest of the nation," said Robert Barnhill, vice provost for research.
Science and engineering research at KU accounted for $172 million, while nonscientific research made up $71 million.
About 73 percent of KU's research during 2002 related to the life sciences, which are broadly defined under federal reporting guidelines. Barnhill said he thought KU would have further success in the life sciences. He noted that new faculty positions in bioinformatics and information technology would help bring in research dollars.
"That's just where things are headed," he said. "KU is positioning itself well with the new faculty that focuses in these areas."
Although KU has been improving in national rankings for research expenditures, the university dropped from 45th to 46th among public universities last year.
Barnhill said he remained optimistic about KU's prospects in future rankings.
"We have no failures, only pauses between successes," he said. "Losing one spot is not statistically significant."
Preliminary data for the fiscal year that ended June 30 shows that awards through the first 10 months of the year were 26 percent ahead of the previous fiscal year, and 39 percent higher than 2001.
"If that persists to the end of the year, that's major," Barnhill said. "It's been a boom year, and expenditures trail awards by a few years. The augurs for the future are good."
Barnhill noted that according to federal estimates, 40 jobs are created for every $1 million in research, according to federal estimates. That means KU's research supports more than 9,700 jobs.
He also said the research boom was good for KU students.
"The best people doing research are usually the best teachers," he said. "It's the difference between having a book read to you and hearing from the guy who wrote the book. It's the difference between a lecture and a conversation."
-- Staff writer Terry Rombeck can be reached