Among the Southern Arizona projects funded by stimulus money, the one that listed the most job benefits was a University of Arizona-based infrared camera project. The project lists 91 jobs as preserved or created by the stimulus funding, but there's a catch: about 87 percent of them are in California.
While the nerve center of the project is in Tucson, most of the jobs are at Lockheed Martin in Palo Alto, Calif., said Marcia Rieke, a UA astronomy professor who is principal investigator on the project. About a dozen people work on the project in Tucson, and their jobs were not really in danger, she said.
But NASA has had a tight budget for scientific research this year, she said. And because of that, the project was in danger of delays if it hadn't received $10 million in stimulus funding.
Despite the nebulous numbers, some economists say that spending on research and equipment is especially helpful to Tucson, even though it might not have a direct jobs-producing benefit in the short term.
The $83 million in research awards for 125 projects saved or created 157 jobs, said Leslie Tolbert, the UA's vice president for research. "Those jobs keep people in the science and engineering work force who otherwise might leave."
New knowledge helps the state stay competitive, she said, and sets the university up to "continue to be the source of innovation and discovery."
Still, at first blush, a $144,223 project to decipher Yaqui grammar and put together a curriculum for teaching it may seem to have little potential for economic benefits or job creation.
Byron Schlomach, chief economist for the Goldwater Institute, said he was "blown away" by it.
"I'm trying to figure out how that creates stimulus," he said.
The project, led by UA linguistics professor Heidi Harley, seeks to decipher the grammar of the language spoken by about 70 people in Southern Arizona and put together a curriculum and Web site for teaching the language to help it survive. They spell the language "Hiaki" to more closely reflect the native speakers' pronunciation.
How is this stimulus? As it turns out, after receiving the $144,223 award, Harley was able to hire two graduate students as research assistants, one of them a tribal member.
The other research assistant, Ph.D. student Alex Trueman, said she started her half-time job this semester after Harley received the funding. Trueman, who is from Australia, called the money "amazingly important."
"I couldn't be here without this funding," she said.
There was a benefit even if it simply went to buying pieces of equipment, like the UA's $1 million electron microprobe, economists say. That's because the money is spread around by whomever receives it.
"All of this is like taking a great big helicopter and dumping money over the city," said Dennis Hoffman, a professor of economics at Arizona State University's W.P. Carey School of Business.
The research spending is particularly helpful, Hoffman said, because it gives Tucson researchers a chance to make breakthroughs that might generate future grants.
Other UA researchers who received grants of stimulus money feel no pressure to justify their awards in terms of jobs retained or added. They had simply applied to the National Science Foundation for money to fund their research, and the foundation happened to grant them money from the stimulus pool.
That's how Marek Zreda, a professor of hydrology and geosciences, received a $5.4 million grant to install a network of soil-moisture probes to improve weather forecasting. The big project was approved for funding in October 2008, he said - before there was such a thing as stimulus funding available. But by the time the foundation disbursed the money, stimulus funding was available.
"For us, it came from NSF," Zreda said. "Where they got the money is unimportant."
Nevertheless, he said, the project has supported the jobs of 17 people, half of which are new positions.
Kevin McCarthy, president of the Arizona Tax Research Association, questions the effect of all the spending on research and everything else that was not a pre-planned infrastructure improvement.
"Not only are they not going to stimulate the economy, but they're a waste of taxpayer money," he said.
What he does approve of is stimulus spending on road projects and similar public improvements that were already planned but for which the schedule was accelerated thanks to stimulus money.