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Centers of Attention

The exotic scientific nether-realms of functional genomics, biotechnology and super-computing would seem to have little in common, save for the fact that those disparate disciplines comprise the heart of the University of Tennessee's largest Centers of Excellence programs.

At the Knoxville campus, Chicago native and University Distinguished Professor Dr. Jack Dongarra will receive $7 million over the next five years to transform the already-successful Innovative Computing Laboratory into the UT Information Technology Research Center.

Engaging and polite, Dongarra is nonetheless possessed of a certain singular focus, an inclination toward rapid penetration of the issue at hand, and his accomplishments are indicative of that intensity of purpose.

One of the top two or three revenue magnets at UT, Dongarra and his ICL provide a research umbrella for 45 students, professors and post-doctorates, the whole of which generates about $3.5 million in outside grants every year. The program sprouted from humble beginnings; upon arriving at UT 11 years ago, Dongarra oversaw a couple of grads, with a budget scarcely sufficient for office furnishings.

Dongarra's Center will undertake a two-fold mission: extending the outer limits of computer connectivity, and availing other researchers university-wide of the benefits of that connectedness.

"We'd like to allow users access to resources—software, databases, etc.—in a very transparent way," Dongarra says. "If I use a toaster, I plug it into the wall and draw power. I don't have to know how to make the wires and circuits work. In the same fashion, we'd like to allow users to plug in and draw on various capabilities, various computer resources, without having to possess knowledge of those resources."

To elaborate, Dongarra offers an exercise in storm forecasting. "A hurricane is about to strike, and we need a computer model for its path, a mechanism for evacuation, a plan for the dissemination of information," he says.

"We would need what we call 'middleware' software; software that provides a variety of computational models and seamless access to many different resources. You wouldn't need to know the specifics of how to find these resources and how to link them. It's a process that involves the integration of hardware, software, and databases."

The ITRC will channel the bulk of its funds first into reeling in more top-drawer graduate students and post-docs. More importantly, the program will seek out other worthy researchers within the university system whose work could blossom if nourished by ITRC resources.

Dr. Gary Sayler's Knox-campus Environmental Biotechnology Center was technically founded in 1986, as "a grassroots effort to create a whole new field." Now, with $7 million in centers funding over the coming years, Sayler's high-tech forays into environmental study and computer/cellular integration will have the resources to achieve their astounding potential.

An arrestingly friendly sort with a penchant for not-infrequent smoke breaks, the dark-maned and mustachioed Sayler oversees his pioneering work from a roomy office on UT's Hill, work that probes such areas as the marriage of computer chips and living cells, and the engineering of cells in such a fashion that they possess the equivalent of primitive decision-making functions.

The applications for these cutting-edge biotechnologies are virtually limitless, but Sayler's group places emphasis on uses with an ecological context. Some of their work explores the treatment of wastewater, for instance, where Sayler can conceive of engineering in the next five years an organism that reacts to and controls toxicity levels by means of an infused computer chip.

"Imagine organisms that control their own environment, without having to bring in a technician every day," Sayler enthuses. "Over the long term, it might be possible to control the environment in a space station or even a space colony, with organisms that destroy waste and enable the creation of oxygen."

In Memphis, Dr. Dan Goldowitz will receive the largest centers grant, $10 million for the Genomics and Bioinformatics Center.

He's already got an early start on building a sturdy funding foundation for his fledgling collective, having received a $13 million NIH grant in September for a proposal to explore genetic clusters responsible for the function of the nervous system.

That's well in keeping with the mission of his bioinformatics center, the central focus of which will be functional genomics—in essence, the division of labor among individual genetic components. The center will draw heavily from the groundwork laid by Oak Ridge National Laboratory's Mouse House, an ongoing research project that catalogs genetic tendencies in successive generations of mice.

Goldowitz hopes to use much of his budget to nurture collaborations with other researchers in the university system. "It's a center without boundaries, no departmental or disciplinary parameters," Goldowitz says. "We'll provide anyone with the tools to enter the era of functional genomics."

The remainder of the first wave of centers includes:

Food Safety Center, Knoxville campus, Dr. Stephen P. Oliver, $5 million
Structural Biology Center, Knoxville, Dr. Engin Serpersu, $5 million
Advanced Materials Center, Knoxville, Dr. Ward Plummer, $5 million
Neurobiology and Imaging of Brain Disease Center, Memphis, Dr. S.T. Kitai, $7 million
Connective Tissues Diseases Center, Memphis, Dr. Andrew H. Kang, $5 million
Vascular Biology Center, Dr. Lisa Jennings, $5 million


  The Price of Excellence

The first nine Centers of Excellence cover a range of scientific endeavors, from genomics to computer-driven micro-organisms.

by Mike Gibson

The series of photographic slides outlining the virtues of Dr. Jack Dongarra's Innovative Computing Laboratory are visually digestible and uncomplicated—horizontally-arrayed blocks of information, black and white, with succinct wisps of text and bold-faced headings. The mechanism by which they are displayed on his IBM laptop, however, is anything but simple.

Wireless, the machine is nonetheless linked to the Internet by means of the small antenna spiking out from its side. "It allows me to work daily with mobile computing," says Dongarra, a tall, ruggedly whiskered gentleman with a ruddy complexion and an agreeable smile.

Mobile computing is only one of the areas of emphasis in Dongarra's division, a long-running University of Tennessee research outpost that has consistently pushed the outer limits of networking, data mining, and bioinformatics. Dongarra has been perhaps the university's most powerful magnet for research dollars over the last two to three years, and his pioneering work in computer connectivity holds boundless prospects for interdisciplinary collaboration.

It was for those very reasons that Dongarra's brainchild was selected in December as one of several research efforts to be funded as part of UT president J. Wade Gilley's Centers of Excellence program. Launched in 2000, centers is a system-wide (UT-Knox, UT-Memphis, UT-Tullahoma, and UT-Chattanooga) initiative intended to help the university ascend to the ranks of the nation's top 25 public research universities, a status determined through various measures of faculty and student competence, quality of programs, research revenues and financial strength.

The significance—perhaps relevance would be a better word—of such an undertaking, Gilley says, lies in the notion that academic excellence, economic/technological development in the private sector, and quality of life statewide are intrinsically linked, legs of a tripod that grow longer and stronger only in sync with, and in response to, one another.

"If you look at the great technology corridors, the truly intellectually and economically fertile areas with high standards of living," says UT research VP Dwayne McCay, "they're centered around great research universities...Silicon Valley, Boston."

But according to a study by Battelle Institute (UT's partner in the Oak Ridge National Laboratory contract), UT lags in several important research-related categories. Battelle took the measure of Tennessee's standing through a compilation of university-wide statistics and figures from sources such as the National Research Council and U.S. News and World Report, and the results were less than heartening.

When compared with the average of the top public schools (the Battelle "25" is headed by UC-Berkeley, and includes regional universities such as Georgia, Florida, and North Carolina), UT graduates 18 percent less of its student body, places 50 percent fewer of its Ph.D. programs in the top half of such, boasts of 33 fewer faculty

with membership in national academies (UT has one, compared with the 34 average among top schools.)

Whether placement on such lists is a substantive goal, one truly indicative of a quality academic institution or a mere cosmetic prop, may still be an open question. One faculty member, a science professor not involved in the program, relates privately that choices for the first wave of centers funding had more to do with prestige and bottom lines, the researchers' ability to bring in conspicuous grant totals, than with the validity or promise of the research.

But among much of the university population, Gilley's objective is hailed as the product of noble aspiration and far-reaching vision. "This was a dramatic step, one that I believe had to be taken," says Dr. Dan Goldowitz of the Memphis campus, whose own Genomics and Bioinformatics Center will be funded to the tune of some $10 million over the next four years. "He (Gilley) has done a wonderful job of selling the program, and of lobbying for the funds that will see it through."

Upon his inauguration in November of 1999, Gilley announced his proposal to establish a $150 million academic investment venture fund, the funding wellspring of his Tennessee Plan for Academic Excellence. Among the components of that plan were initiatives to triple the number of national merit scholars in the university population, increase the school's competitiveness in attracting top-notch graduate students, fund new faculty positions, and nurture seven major academic centers of excellence at the level of roughly $15 million each—$105 million total.

The centers plan, organically linked to the "top 25" initiative, saw the university commission the Battelle benchmarking study, which included a comprehensive evaluation of the quality of UT students, the eminence of its faculty, dollars expended per student, etc.

McCay says there are any number of top 25 assessments in addition to that of Battelle, ranking systems that often vary in both substance and criteria. But most currently place Tennessee somewhere between 40 and 50 among public research universities.

The centers program itself is modeled after similar endeavors at the higher-ranked research institutions. "I think (reaching the top 25) is an achievable goal, and it's being backed up by a willingness to invest," says McCay.

But the execution of Gilley's plan is still a muddled issue. In December, a selection committee announced the first nine center designates, and the revelation seemed to beg as many questions as it resolved. Though the state ($30 million) and the university ($26 million) have promised the funds to launch the first nine centers, Gilley and other administrators have been unable to provide a clearly-defined and consistent outline of whether or from where the additional portion of the $105 million will come. (The university's initial $26 million is to be derived from "administrative streamlining," savings promised upon Gilley's ascension to the presidency. Gilley says a detailed enumeration of those savings will be presented at a February meeting of the board of trustees.)

By Gilley's own admission, many of his original goals have been scaled back or retailored by fiscal realities. And several of the researchers whose proposals will receive funding were dismayed when the selection committee chose to divvy the initial $56 million among a larger-than-expected number of centers, spreading thin the available resources.

That budgetary shell game manifested a significant disconnect between plan and execution. The researchers submitting centers proposals (111 in all) were instructed that most of the christening allocations would be divvied among two or three large center designates, with an additional four or five smaller ones receiving much smaller amounts.

With little heed given to those preliminary funding guidelines, the selectors chose instead to fund nine centers of similar magnitude, an egalitarian gesture that left all of the "finalists" with somewhere between $5 million and $10 million. Most of the designees had fashioned business plans in accordance with the original figures, and the announcement signaled as much as a two-thirds reduction in their anticipated centers budgets.

Gilley says the rationale for those new priorities is two-fold, based on the abundance of existing university resources in those nine areas, and on their prospects for attracting future federal funding. He dismisses the notion that this retailoring will pose serious problems for the centers program, averring that such funding sleights-of-hand are standard operating procedure in the liquid environment of grants and government programs.

"I don't think it's a problem at all," says Gilley. "That's the way grants and contracts are. You ask for more than you're going to get, then you negotiate. A typical faculty member here before would be lucky to get $100,000 in research funds, so $5 million, $7 million, $10 million doesn't look too bad."

On the surface, the faculty members whose research will receive centers funding have reacted with grace and apparent flexibility, even lauding the seemingly elastic quality of Gilley's vision.

"They awarded more centers and funded less-per than they planned," says Goldowitz, who received half of the $20 million he anticipated. "But that may be a good thing in the long run. I think maybe the plan is to see who does well and maybe back off on those that don't do so well. I think with the money we get, we'll show them they should invest a lot more in the future."

"Putting all your eggs in a couple of baskets might have been a little risky," says Dongarra, who received $7 million, or about one-third of the amount he had planned for. "They want to find the best people to put in this position, and the proposal was an exercise in choosing who that would be. Now they're saying 'These are the people we have faith in.'"

But even Dongarra admits the reapportioning was "disappointing. We worked very hard to produce a proposal at a certain level of funding."

And there's a hint of veiled frustration among many of the centers' fundees, a whiff of dismay that, if largely unspoken, still lingers palpably. "We had to put our entire business plan in the shredder," mutters a researcher within one of the new centers, faintly under his breath.

All of the individual centers' programs will require significant recasting, forced as they are to make structural modifications that might seem crippling to the casual observer. Dongarra's information technology center, for instance, was to have been predicated on attracting so-called University Distinguished Professors, research "superstars" who would straddle the line separating information technology from other disciplines, incorporating the innovative computing lab's resources in research projects across a spectrum of sciences.

With a 70 percent reduction in his planned centers budget, Dongarra says the Information Technology Research Center will have to shelve plans for UDP recruitment, at least for now, and channel its efforts into attracting new students and post-doctorate researchers and nurturing programs already in existence at UT. "We'd hoped those UDPs could have generated new research funding at a level of maybe $3 million to $5 million each," says Dongarra. "They were to have been the cornerstone of the center."

And according to Dr. Gary Sayler, whose program is earmarked to receive $7 million, the $17 million difference between his business plan (which assumed a $24 million grant) and his actual funding will virtually eliminate efforts to bring in new faculty.

It will also curtail to no small degree the equipment purchases necessary for the furthering of that program, dubbed the Environmental Biotechnology Center. "It will hurt," says Sayler. "It will dramatically decrease our plans for new equipment."

But scalebacks or no, these apportionments are accompanied by a rigorous set of expectations. According to one set of 1997 figures, the university ranked only 38th in federal R&D dollars among public institutions. In order to improve upon that mark, Gilley expects that each center will yield a return on investment of roughly four-to-one over the next five years. He has, at times, spoken of the first wave of centers as constituting a $280 million program, but that figure banks on the notion that all nine will achieve that desired ratio.

In December, the university held a workshop for new centers' researchers outlining in clearer detail the requirements of centers' status. Administrators announced that each center would be reviewed at two-year intervals and assessed in its progression toward that four-to-one return on investment. They also mandated that after five years, all centers must be self-sustaining.

"There's definitely the possibility that a center could be cut or ended," says Micah Beck, a key researcher in Dongarra's computing lab. "After five years, you can't be sitting there burning money."

Self-perpetuation will be contingent on each center's ability to draw additional funding from federal grants, the bulk of which emanate from the National Institute of Health and the National Science Foundation.

According to Gilley, one of the selection criteria for choosing the nine centers was compatibility with current trends in federal allocation. He cites a $5 billion, or 15 percent increase in research dollars in the most recent federal budget, and a $2.7 billion, or 17 percent increase in NIH allocation, increases that present ripe opportunities for investment in efforts such as the university's planned food safety center, or Goldowitz's genomics research.

"Right now, there are enormous amounts of money available in health-related fields, and that's why we chose many of the programs we did," Gilley says.

According to Dr. Franklin Harris, a former NSF member now with UT and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the centers' profs will have to author proposals and seek grants such as those available via the NSF's Science and Technology Centers program, which seeks to nurture scholastic/industrial collaborations that foster new science coupled with relevant commercial applications.

Such grants are apportioned on a competitive basis, says Harris, and the availability of them is hardly unlimited; the NSF offers hundreds of millions in funding, but may spread those millions over only a handful of programs. He's optimistic, however, that UT's program will be a powerful magnet for attracting grants.

"These centers' grants will finally give UT the resources to fill the gaps—faculty and otherwise—that will make them more competitive," Harris says. "That (lack of personnel) has been one of the biggest missing ingredients at UT."

The nature and source of the second wave of centers funding, due in the spring, is somewhat befuddling. Most of the administration's pronouncements as to numbers and dollar amounts have already been fundamentally altered. Gilley says the current plan is to designate perhaps 15 new smaller centers, mostly in the realm of humanities and social sciences, for which the selection committee is reviewing 55 proposals.

The centers program was announced at a total of $105 million at the dawn of Gilley's presidency. But that scheme has already been drastically reshaped, and Gilley says now the remaining centers will receive somewhere between $20 and $40 million total, putting the program's aggregate funding at $76 million to $96 million. "Some things have changed," he admits.

As to the source of those additional millions, Gilley refers broadly to a number of existing resources and potential windfalls: $20 million received for the recent sale of UT Medical Center, a pending $50 to $60 million academic investment fund derived from a combination of private fund-raising and an alumni Visa card program, and as much as $24 million in additional administrative savings over and above the $26 million already guaranteed and set aside for the first nine centers.

If those numbers seem confusing and inconsistent with past plans, that's because they are. Gilley can give no definitive answer as to which of those sources will funnel into the remaining centers, or in what amounts. "These details have yet to be worked out," he says. "And we may yet find other ways of creating revenue streams."

Most observers share the sentiment that those streams will have to flow in abundance if the university is to reach a loftier status among the ranks of research institutions, especially if that status is meant to become an effective engine for academic and economic betterment, rather than merely a gaudy point of institutional prestige.

McCay points to a generously-funded University of Alabama-Birmingham initiative that has allegedly generated $400 million over 15 years via private research spin-offs alone. Goldowitz notes a recent $250 million shot-in-the-arm given to select California centers for expanded research by that state's legislature, as well as similar gestures in North Carolina and Kentucky. "You can go on down the list, and our state probably ranks near the bottom," he says.

"My concern would be that this is still not up to the level of funding for similar centers in some of those top 25 schools," says Lorayne Lester, dean of arts and sciences. "There's extraordinary funding at some of these schools, even if you just look around the Southeast."

"We're going to have to belly up, particularly at the state level," says Harris. "It takes money to make money. That's true in research as well as business."

But Harris's declaration still begs a basic question, that of the validity of rankings and recognition and research dollar figures. "It builds an internal momentum," he adds. "But it's also about visibility. People start looking at what you're doing, and see it in a different light."

January 11, 2001 * Vol. 11, No. 2
© 2001 Metro Pulse