Yudof: State aid should fund more bio and technical fields

Chris Hamilton

AUSTIN, Texas — Last year, while investigating his future post, University President Mark Yudof took the school’s pulse, and then quickly laid it on the operating table. The prognosis — multiple transplants needed. Stat.
He hoisted two ideas from the University of Texas-Austin, where he was executive vice president and provost from 1994 to 1997. Programs in molecular, cellular biology and digital technology could be inserted into the limping patient with the help of $138 million in state aid.
The legislative session kicks off today.
Over the last two decades, high-ranking, major universities have been investing heavily in the biological and technological fields.
According to academic officials, the University of Illinois has a model program in digital technology. Three California schools are considered the best in molecular, cellular biology.
Although 68 percent of the University’s research money is directed to biological sciences, the University ranks 34th nationally in this science category, according to the National Research Council.
“Make 12 random calls to public universities and you’ll find them putting their money in the same things,” Yudof said.
The University president has repeatedly made the ubiquitous pledge to elevate the school into the overall top five for public research universities. The University is 9th right now. His Austin experience with high-tech and health-orientated sciences was a critical factor in his hiring, said some University regents.
“He spoke about them right from the get-go,” said Regent H. Bryan Neel III, who is a doctor at the Rochester Mayo Clinic and has conducted research in genetics. “That caught my attention.”
He added that, for the University, the programs could generate financially beneficial relationships with private businesses.
Some state officials have said they also anticipate dividends for Minnesota’s economy through investing in these programs.
“Yudof’s focus on technology and the sciences is going to define a large part of our future,” said Gov. Arne Carlson. “We’re going to be spinning off so many jobs. It’s going to be very pleasant.”
But some legislators are still on the fence about giving the University more than $290 million through capital and supplemental budget requests to help finance these and other advancements.
“I want to know how the state financial outlook stands before I’ll commit,” said Rep. Henry Kalis, DFL-Walters, and chair of the House capital investment committee.
In Austin, Texas, far away from the legislative fight over how to spend Minnesota’s $1.3 billion state surplus, relatively new programs in biology and technology are taking shape.
A white limestone with fossil inlay building glares in the Texas sun. The $26-million Molecular, Cellular Biology Institute is new. From this branch of science, more durable and plentiful crops will grow. Experts even say a cure for cancer might come from this building.
Inside, researchers map out the basic building blocks of life — genes and cells — discovering how they function. Basic research is conducted to expand the world’s knowledge and attract government-sponsored research.
Allan Lambowitz, director of the Texas institute, said he is proud that he focuses on expanding knowledge rather than developing products for the corporate world.
Although there are about 30 biology-based companies in the Austin area, without a medical or veterinary school on campus, the institute can only form limited bonds with private businesses.
The biologically related sciences annually generate $160 million in National Institutes of Health research grants. Victor Bloomfield, Faculty Council chair at the University and a biochemistry professor, said he believes this emphasis will continue.
Expanding private-public partnerships at the University’s proposed institute is an important goal, Neel said.
With Minnesota ranked second in the nation in agri-business, strengthening this relationship means strengthening plant microbiology. And $14 million of the budget request is dedicated to renovating the agricultural labs on the St. Paul campus. “We wouldn’t have pushed that at Austin because, in Texas, agriculture is done by Texas A&M,” Yudof said.
Having an appreciation for the geographical relationship of participants in the program is as important as understanding similar relationships with cells. Putting experts in close enough proximity to share findings produces results, said Hank Bose, chairman of the Austin Microbiology Department.
More than 60 faculty members, 60 graduate students and 40 undergraduates work in the building. Annual funding of $3 million and 30 labs help coordinate a wide range of expertise from throughout the Austin campus. Under the umbrella of the institute, disciplines such as botany and biochemistry leave the parameters of their current departments.
Most University officials share their Austin counterparts’ enthusiasm for proximity and the results it may incur. And that’s why the jewel of the capital budget is the proposed $70-million Molecular, Cellular Biology Building, said Frank Cerra, senior vice president for University Health Sciences.
The building would replace the hodgepodge collection of Lyon Lab, and Millard, Owre and Jackson halls on the East Bank.
There is a plan still in the works to merge duplicating — and often competing — biology-related programs in varying colleges and departments. For instance, there are two biochemistry departments, two biomedical engineering institutes and three different entities involving genetics, molecular and cellular biology.
“Welcome to the world of an institution that began in the 1800s,” Neel said.
While details are sketchy, everyone agrees Yudof’s plans — and the money — are impetuses to get the ball rolling.
And one way to jump start his plans is to provide funds to attract 17 superstar faculty members and junior support personnel. Administrators will ask the Legislature for $9 million a year for salaries and a one-time $15 million for lab set-up costs.
Four of these blue-chip faculty members could be set up in a newly renovated Walter Library. The fix up — which could cost $53.6 million –would support the digital technology initiative. The gutted and computerized library would be the hub for an interdisciplinary research center. Faculty from computer science and engineering to chemistry would be involved in the project.
Defining the program is in the preliminary stages. But an October summit of local computer business and faculty leaders proved that the focus is narrowing, said H. Ted Davis, dean of the Institute of Technology.
High-performance computing, graphic simulation, networking and analyzing massive amounts of data are expectations for the initiative. Researchers could model the structure of proteins or costumes for the theatre. Again, close ties to private business would be a University ambition, Davis said.
In Austin, a similar, 4-year-old program is establishing itself. Within the next year, a $12 million digital technology center will be erected on the campus.
An institute of computer science and applied mathematics faculty work with students to design and simulate computer models. The center will house them and other digital technology groups, said Christine Maziar, an Austin vice provost and the University’s new research vice president and graduate school dean.
The center is growing and private outreach is a priority in the Austin area. Partnerships with businesses such as IBM and Motorola are in the mill.
“Austin’s been called the silicon prairie,” Maziar said. “In fact, there are so many flights to San Jose (Calif.) the plane’s called the nerd bird because of all of the engineers on board.”
She added that there’s an akin flight taking 3M workers from Austin to Minneapolis.