Virginia Tech Magazine
Message from the President | Winter 2007

Long-term investments in academic research
by Charles W. Steger '69

President Charles Steger

"This is an historic investment in Virginia's future,
one that can save lives and generate economic growth."
--Gov. Mark Warner, December 2005

Upon former Gov. Mark Warner's recommendation, the 2006 Virginia General Assembly made significant direct investments in academic research for the first time. The resulting Commonwealth Research Initiative (CRI) began with more than $250 million in seed money for the state's public universities.

This investment in research was remarkable not only for its breadth, but also because it indicates that our political leadership has come to realize the undeniable link between direct investment in research and a better future for the state. Many generations have passed since our forefathers had to make a similar argument--that it was a wise use of the public purse to invest in human capital. Today, it is readily understood that individuals, businesses, and society all benefit from underwriting the cost of public schools, colleges, and universities.

Today, it is ever more apparent that our quality of life and our economic competitiveness are linked to new ideas, discoveries, inventions, and different ways of doing business. Many such inventions are spawned by research at the nation’s institutions of higher education.

States that do not understand this connection will struggle to create the jobs necessary in a modern society--and Virginia is late to this game. In contrast, Michigan is already developing a Life Sciences Corridor with more than $1 billion for biomedical research at its public universities. The Georgia Research Alliance has invested more than $400 million in its universities, which in turn has attracted more than $500 million in additional research. And California has approved a 10-year, $3 billion effort to become a global leader in stem cell research.

In addition to a positive business climate in the traditional sense, states must have a positive intellectual climate as it relates to knowledge-job creation and a well-educated work force.

While the federal government has been the primary sponsor of basic research for about 60 years, the aforementioned states and many others recognize that they must make strategic investments today in order to maintain an opportunity to compete tomorrow. In addition to a positive business climate in the traditional sense, states must have a positive intellectual climate as it relates to knowledge-job creation and a well-educated work force, and they must generate the ideas and innovation that spawn business development.

One example illustrates this point quite well. Virginia Tech chemistry Professor Harry Dorn, working in the emerging field of nanoscience, was the first to insert metal atoms inside the hollow carbon molecule known as a buckyball. (The discovery of the buckyball, incidentally, landed a Nobel Prize for three scientists.) Luna Innovations--a company formed by Virginia Tech alum and former professor Kent Murphy--opened a manufacturing facility in Danville, Va., that will use Dorn's invention in multiple applications, including MRI tests, stain resistant textiles, lubricants, and fuel cell components.

Indeed, the future of science and technology lies in a small realm--today's world of discovery (and fabrication) is set at the cellular, atomic, and sub-atomic levels. Scientists tell us that the frontier exists on the nanometer scale.

The Commonwealth Research Initiative has enabled the purchase of sophisticated equipment (with such exotic names as Live Scan Swept Field Confocal Microscope, Laser Capture Microdissection System, X-ray diffractometer, and dual-beam focused ion beam-scanning electron microscope) that permit a glimpse of not only the formerly invisible, but also the manipulation of organisms and materials that are sometimes only several atoms thick. From these microscopic discoveries and inventions will come the medicines, drug therapies, and new materials of tomorrow.

During the coming year, Virginia's leaders will begin to develop the next biennial budget. We at Virginia Tech will be arguing that the CRI--intended to be a landmark one-time investment--should be continued permanently. It is in our citizens' long-term interest for the state to continue support in such promising research areas as infectious diseases, materials, biotechnology, nanotechnology, information technology, cancer, and more.

Just as we invest in human capital by supporting schools and universities, so, too, should we invest in intellectual capital to sustain economic competitiveness in science and technology.

Through such investments, we at Virginia Tech will invent the future.

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