Mark Yudof wants to use cellular and molecular biology as a vehicle to drive the University into the 21st century but is waiting for a green light from the Legislature.
The University president presented the school’s $41.5 million supplemental budget request to the Senate Higher Education Budget Division on Tuesday. If appropriated, the money would go to faculty, staff and classroom improvements, with a focus on biological sciences.
Cellular and molecular biology links many colleges in the University and involves genetic research in plants, animals and humans.
“This is the future of medicine and everyone understands that,” Yudof said.
Under the supplemental request, more than half of the new faculty positions would be in biology and agriculture. Money would also be appropriated to boost faculty salaries, now some of the lowest in the nation.
Average salaries for University professors rank in the high 20s among its 30 peer research institutions, according to 1996-97 American Association of University Professors statistics.
“When you’re trying to recruit someone, they’re not going to come for a pay cut,” Yudof said.
Yudof praised University scientists for previous work, but maintained they need more equipment and a strong core of faculty in order to stay competitive.
The Scientist and Science Watch magazines ranked the College of Agricultural, Food and Environmental Sciences in the top five schools nationally, even with the department’s small budget.
“We’re not ranked among the top five in funding,” said Mike Martin, the college’s dean.
Scientists use molecular and cellular biology to create disease-resistant crops, trees that remove contamination from industrial sites and plants that better filter runoff into rivers.
“I have sympathy in my heart for that research,” said the Senate committee chairman Leroy Stumpf, DFL-Thief River Falls. Stumpf farmed in northern Minnesota before becoming a legislator.
Minnesota farmers, including many of his constituents, lost more than $300 million in the last five years due to a crop disease called wheat scab.
Genetic research, some aimed at wiping out wheat scab and other diseases, accelerated in the last decade and will soon be a distinguishing factor among universities, Martin said.
“I believe that the pace is going to be so fast that public institutions will have to run to keep up,” he said.
Yudof noted in his presentation that genetic research initiatives should have been made 10 years ago. School officials now need state funding to seize opportunities in the sciences and remain a leader in research.
Stumpf said the committee might be able to give the programs a shot in the arm by way of increased funding. The committee plans to examine how well the University used past state appropriations before committing dollars this year. Stumpf also wants more evidence that molecular and cellular biology, along with Yudof’s other proposals, is the right direction for the University.
Yudof will give a more detailed presentation of the supplemental request to the committee next Tuesday.