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UC Provost M.R.C. Greenwood says stronger science education critical for U.S. competitiveness

M.R.C. Greenwood
M.R.C. Greenwood, provost and senior vice president of academic affairs for the UC System, who kicked off the International Biotech Summit with a look at the role of research universities. (Peg Skorpinski photo)
 
– Giving leading-edge biotechnology researchers a high-speed connection to venture capital and private industry, and vice versa, is the goal of the Eighth International Biotech Summit now under way at UC Berkeley (May 10 and 11). Bringing together more than 200 scientists, business leaders, venture capital investors, and veteran entrepreneurs, the two-day conference takes "Biology at the Edge" as its theme and is hosted by the California Institute for Quantitative Biomedical Research (QB3) and produced by the Connections Institute.

"We're very interested in what the industry's needs are in terms of aiding the efficient transfer of technology into industry, identifying early opportunities for investment, and identifying what training programs we should be thinking of for the future," said Diane Leite, QB3's deputy director, in an interview before the conference. As one of the four California Institutes for Science and Innovation established by former California governor Gray Davis, QB3's mission includes helping commercialize the technologies and research developed by its member universities. Says Leite, "The biotech industry is poised to become another Silicon Valley in terms of driving the California economy. Our job is to make the conditions ideal for that to happen."

Snapshot of the California Institute for Quantitative Biomedical Research (QB3)
 
A partnership forged in 2000 between the state of California, private industry, and the University of California campuses at Berkeley, San Francisco, and Santa Cruz, QB3 is bringing the benefits of biomedical research more quickly to those in need and, simultaneously, helping to sustain California’s economic growth and its competitiveness in the global marketplace. Several major initiatives demonstrate QB3's impact:
Synthetic biology Developing the underlying design principles for biological systems. Long-term goal: designing new microorganisms and their components to solve major health, energy, and environmental problems.
Computational biology Fostering research at the interface of computation and molecular biology to create a multidisciplinary research and educational program.
Drug development Partnering with PharmaSTART™, a consortium of research organizations led by SRI International that facilitates translation and funding of discovery research from California-based universities and small companies.
Biomedical imaging Developing vastly improved imaging techniques to study protein structure and the metabolic details of human tissues. QB3 takes advantage of state-of-the-art tools in light microscopy, x-ray tomography, cryo-electron microscopy, single molecule imaging, and magnetic resonance imaging.

To that end, QB3 is launching a new program to give investors and industry a ringside seat at what's happening in the labs, announced Graham R. Fleming, acting executive director of QB3, in his introduction to the conference. The Institute will hold quarterly symposia on specific topics, produce a newsletter targeted specifically for these groups, and consult with them about potential business models.

This year's summit was divided into sessions on four of the most bleeding edge areas of biotech research: engineered biology, synthetic biology, computational biology, and nano-biology. These fields represent the convergence of biology, information technology, and nanotechnology, or "BIN."

"BIN is our new mantra," said M.R.C. Greenwood, provost and senior vice president of academic affairs for the UC System. Greenwood kicked off the first day of the conference with a lecture on "The Research University and the Foundations of the Life Science Economy."

She gave a quick glimpse of some of the developments in the BIN pipeline: in the near term, great strides in non-invasive surgery, advances in drug delivery, and the development of preventive cosmetics; to be followed in five to 10 years by smart adaptive materials, micro-surgery, and genetically specific drugs; while on the 15-year horizon loom breakthroughs such as the mass application of carbon nanotubes (microscopically small, light, and strong construction materials) and other nanoelectronics, quantum computing, and intelligent machines that can repair our body's cells from within.

But before those ideas can come to fruition, Greenwood cautioned, there are major hurdles to surmount. "Research universities are commonly castigated as being too much like silos to work across disciplinary lines," she said. "But go to one these days and you'll see how we're trying to bring faculty together" - among other ways, through the physical layout of new buildings. Researchers themselves "feel an intellectual pull into interdisciplinary areas," she argued, but much federal and other funding still tends to favor the top-down, confined, "silo" structure. And with the focus on interdisciplinary research comes the challenge of melding the cultures of different fields, along with their varying ways of handling technology transfer, patents, and business models. By their very nature, the California Institutes for Innovation offer unique opportunities to create truly new models of interdisciplinary science and technology transfer.

The biggest problem in moving ideas from the lab to the marketplace, said Greenwood, is a massive drought of brainpower looming in the United States' near future. As the National Science Foundation's recently released Science & Engineering (S&E) Indicators 2004 report revealed, the number of U.S. jobs requiring science and engineering skills is growing at nearly 5 percent annually, compared with a 1 percent growth rate for the rest of the U.S. labor market. Yet there are not nearly enough qualified U.S. scientists and engineers to meet the demand. In the past the nation has relied on skilled foreign-born workers, but many are choosing to work in other countries in response to increasingly strict U.S. visa requirements and burgeoning global demand for their skills.

With Asian countries now conferring more science and engineering bachelor's degrees and Europe more such Ph.D.'s than the United States, "our biggest national security problem is the number of students interested in science and math," said Greenwood. And although the long-term solution to this shortfall starts with K-12 education, budget cuts to public research universities inflict deep short-term wounds, she argued. She listed the blows: $500 million cut from the University of California in the last four years; funding decreased 16 percent even as enrollment was raised 16 percent; research funding by the state cut 25 percent.

Greenwood asked conference participants, as they learn about groundbreaking research by QB3 and other research centers and universities, to think about how research universities lay the foundation of the next economy. "The new governor has indicated he's interested in keeping California competitive," she said. "I hope you'll help me make the case that keeping our research universities competitive is critical to that process."