University invests large sum in research sites

The new research facilities are scheduled to open within the next five years, creating thousands of new jobs.

Just north of University Avenue, beyond Stadium Village, lies the site of a University project costing more than $200 million – a project that University officials laud as a catalyst to improve the school’s reputation. They even want a light-rail route to go through the area.

The project isn’t the TCF Bank Stadium, but the future home of a biomedical research park – part of a developing section of campus known as the East Gateway District.

A hefty price tag

The state is funding 75 percent of the $292 million facilities and infrastructure costs for four new research sites. The University is responsible for the other 25 percent, or $73 million.

The Center for Magnetic Resonance Research is scheduled for summer 2010 completion.

The Cancer Biomedical Research and the Lillehei Biomedical Research buildings are set to be up in 2012, with the Infectious Disease and Neuroscience Biomedical Research Building arriving a year later.

Frank Cerra, senior vice president of health sciences, said each facility should generate $20 million to $25 million in new project money.

More than $300 million of University research funding – roughly half of all current sponsored funding – feeds the biomedical science departments, University President Bob Bruininks said.

Minnesota has more than 500 biomedical-related businesses, employing around 250,000 people, University officials said.

Each facility will create roughly 1,000 new jobs, Cerra said, and will hopefully attract major investment companies to help develop the area.

“In the next five to seven years, there will probably be 5,000 to 7,000 new jobs over in that area, just from these kinds of investments,” he said.

If you build it, (you hope) they will come

Faculty salaries, which aren’t included in the $292 million, will be paid with multiple funds, Cerra said, including cost reductions, internal reallocations and support from partner organizations.

The University is competing with schools like Berkeley, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Wisconsin and Michigan, he said.

Joe Metzger, a St. Paul native and director of the Center for Integrative Genomics at Michigan, will become an endowed chair in physiology at the University in August.

When asked how much the new facilities impacted his decision to come here, Metzger said, “Hugely.”

Daniel Garry, chief of cardiology and director of the Lillehei Heart Institute, said he currently works in two different buildings. A single building for scientists will be an improvement, he said.

“It’s like a house and you have your family living in two separate houses,” Garry said. “People just don’t do that. It’s not efficient and it’s not productive.”

Garry, who completed his medical residency at the University, said he looked at positions at the University of Iowa, the University of Cincinnati and Yale University.

“Other Big Ten institutions have been investing in their buildings for some time,” he said. “These new buildings allow us to compete.”

Garry, who joined the University last July, said coming back wasn’t just out of familiarity.

“Aside from my attachment to the state, I think that the University of Minnesota has a reputation as a leading stem-cell institution,” he said, adding it’s one of the top five in the nation.

Coping with ‘relatively flat’ federal funding

Despite the research expansion, officials acknowledged federal funding has been hard to come by.

“There’s no question there’s not as much money as there used to be,” Cerra said.

With new facilities, “it will be much easier (to obtain funding) than it was two months ago,” he said.

Bruininks said “relatively flat” funding from the National Institutes of Health is “barely keeping pace with inflation.”

“But it’s also true that the University’s grants and contracts this year, mostly in the biomedical science area, increased by nearly $50 million,” he said, ranking the University second to the University of Washington among public universities last year.

What do the numbers say?

The University lagged in federal research expenditures behind schools like Michigan and Wisconsin, according to 2006 data from the Center for Measuring University Performance.

It’s also ranked below the same schools in biological sciences, according to U.S. News & World Report.

The University’s Medical School is also ranked lower than Ohio State University and Wisconsin by the same rankings.

But Cerra said the University isn’t playing catch-up.

“In many areas, we’re way out front,” he said, noting neuroscience, diabetes and infectious disease research.

In their goal to become a top three research institution, University officials have used the Center for Measuring University Performance’s rankings as a benchmark.

According to 2007 rankings, the University was in the second tier of top public-research universities – in the top 13 overall.

Compared to 2006, the University remained relatively stagnant in rankings, but the number of peer schools in the same tier rose from three to five.

Bruininks said the data, based on two-year-old numbers, was calculated “on the heels” of a large base-budget reduction.

It was hard to make significant investments then and outside research funding slowed, he said.

Bruininks said the growing competition didn’t worry him.

“It would be a mistake to assume that everyone else is going to sit around idly and watch the world go by,” he said. “I expect that very healthy competition to continue.”