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January / February 2003


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Developing Research

 


Developing Research
Maine Research Consortium to help the state build a knowledge-based economy

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Deirdre Mageean
The UMaine associate vice president for research and dean of the Graduate School speaks about research at UMaine.
 

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Richard Woychik
Its director speaks about the goals and achievements of the Jackson Laboratory.
 

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Offering a Ph.D. program in the cutting-edge field of functional genomics requires an interdisciplinary core curriculum in biological, computational and physical sciences. To do that in Maine requires an inter-institutional approach.

Maine does not have a university medical center, as do most states. What it does have is a private institution that is a world leader in genetics, a research university and a hospital-based research institute.

That collaboration between Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, the University of Maine and Maine Medical Center Research Institute in Scarborough has resulted in a $2.68 million Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to launch a five-year doctoral program in functional genomics — the study of genes and their proteins as part of the biochemical processes in the body.

Throughout the country, programs like NSF IGERT are considered new models for graduate education, featuring collaborative research that transcends traditional disciplinary boundaries. In Maine, the new doctoral program exemplifies the innovation needed to participate in an increasingly knowledge-based economy. It epitomizes the philosophy and potential of the new Maine Research Consortium.


The Maine Research Consortium — Bigelow Laboratory for Oceanographic Sciences, Jackson Laboratory, Maine Medical Center Research Institute, UMaine, the University of Southern Maine and the University of Maine System — was created in 2002 to develop collaborative strategies to secure large-scale, multidisciplinary projects to strengthen R&D in the state.

As a facilitator, the consortium will develop protocols and procedures by which researchers can collaborate, prepare funding proposals, and share facilities, equipment, faculty, students and costs. Also included will be criteria by which other Maine organizations may join the voluntary group. In essence, says Don McDowell, retired CEO of Maine Medical Center, the consortium will do what traditionally happens in the executive offices of a state university's medical center.

"With the consortium, the state will be able to attract its proportionate share of federal research dollars," says McDowell, who chaired the Interim Research Council that drafted the five-year memorandum of understanding signed in October by the six founding consortium institutions.

Researcher
 

"Those dollars will bring jobs and financial resources. This will expand the ability of Maine organizations to compete with those in New York, Massachusetts and California. We will have as much research horsepower in the combination of our multiple institutions as those states have in one (medical school)."

From the beginning, McDowell says, it was important to understand that each institution is sovereign and fully operational. "As members of the consortium, we're not asking them to give up any of their autonomy. Any involvement in the consortium is on a voluntary basis. There will even be times that member institutions could be competitors for the same grant. Nevertheless, from the first meeting, all agreed that the consortium was in the best interest of their organizations."

Life sciences research, including conservation biology and genetics, is a common thread among the consortium's member institutions. According to McDowell, the consortium also will focus on areas of expertise, such as marine research with medical applications and forest products research.

An example of the kind of project the consortium could facilitate will receive federal funding early next year. The multi-million-dollar NSF infrastructure grant will create the Center of Molecular Biophysics with UMaine, Jackson Laboratory and Maine Medical Center Research Institute. For the three institutions, it will mean new jobs and a new chapter in cutting-edge research in Maine, says UMaine Executive Vice President and Provost Robert Kennedy.

"It's bringing tremendously promising research in nanotechnology and combining it with breakthroughs in human genomics," Kennedy says. "The biophysics center will take world-class expertise in biophysics from our campus and combine it with joint programs in genetics at Jackson Lab and Maine Medical to address biomedical problems."

Through this and other projects, faculty and students will have access to collaborations and interactions that add value and opportunity, says Kennedy. "The result will be better training for students because of more opportunities and better funding for research than the state can afford by itself."


Such an alliance among universities and independent research labs in Maine is the cornerstone of a November 2001 action plan issued by the State Planning Office called "30 and 1,000: How to Build a Knowledge-Based Economy in Maine and Raise Incomes to the National Average by 2010." Based on a review of per capita income data for the past decade from all 50 states, the State Planning Office cited two primary factors for differences nationwide: the percentage of adults with four-year college degrees, and the dollars per employed worker spent on R&D.

The report notes that, in 1998, 19 percent of adults in Maine had college degrees (placing the state 46th in the nation) and $255 per worker spent on R&D (44th in the nation), producing $23,529 in per capita income (37th in the nation). But according to the State Planning Office, if 30 percent of Maine's adults had four-year college degrees and $1,000 was spent on R&D per worker by 2010, Maine's per capita income would rise to the national average ($28,000) or above, and economic activity would increase.


Under the 30-1,000 formula, an additional 100,000 adults in Maine would get college degrees in the next decade, and R&D investments statewide would increase four-fold.

"The 30 and 1,000 report is about economic development, pursuit of new knowledge and identification of the drivers here. We will only meet our goal by getting high-paying jobs in our state. We need to grow entrepreneurs in Maine, as opposed to just attracting them to Maine," says State Planning Office Director David Keeley.

In a time of budget shortfalls and a weak economy, it's more important than ever to look at investments in education and leveraging of federal research dollars, Keeley says.

"The Maine legislature and voters have increased public spending for R&D from less than $1 million to more than $30 million a year," Keeley says. "In many instances these funds have leveraged federal and private funding five-fold. This is the kind of return on our investment that we need. The expenditure of research dollars means building buildings, hiring staff, buying equipment, people moving to the area. The ripples through the economy continue with the creation of new products and services."

People often struggle to understand the importance of R&D, Keeley says. "The blue collar worker may say, ‘it's not going to benefit me.' Part of what we're doing is helping people understand how it all merges together (for the greater good). It's all about growing Maine's economy so your child, whether he or she is in the crib or in high school, will find jobs in Maine paying above the minimum wage. (It's about) providing children opportunity."

An obvious measure of success will be the degree to which Maine has collaborative research funded "in significant numbers to the left of the decimal point," McDowell says. "If we can attract millions of dollars through collaborations, we will have succeeded. We will have contributed to the world of science and the good of mankind. And the state will be viewed as a small but highly respected, very active force in research in this country."

by Margaret Nagle
January-February, 2003

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