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Workshop attendees look at potential growth avenues for science & technology
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Workshop attendees look at potential growth avenues for science and technology

Virginia 2020 Science and Technology Planning Commission workshop

Peggy Harrison
Speakers at the first session of the workshop were (left to right): U.Va. President John T. Casteen III, U.Va. Engineering professor and chair of the Virginia 2020 Science & Technology Commission Anita Jones, Stanford University President Emeritus Donald Kennedy and Virginia Tech President Paul Torgersen.

By Fariss Samarrai

The Virginia 2020 Science and Technology Planning Commission conducted a workshop Sept. 23-25 on "Models for Advancing Academic Excellence," during which commission members discussed and evaluated several outstanding programs at other institutions. The commission will now begin to develop recommendations to improve science and technology programs at the University.

Workshop participants included invited guests from U.Va.'s administration and its science and technology departments, along with commission members. Guest speakers from 12 universities gave presentations and led lively discussions on routes U.Va. might consider for creating excellence in selected areas of the natural and life sciences and engineering.

Among the major themes that emerged were: the need to develop strategies for attracting the best graduate students; ways to exploit advantages, such as relationships with nearby universities and high technology industries in Northern Virginia; how to become a leader in the use of information technology for education processes; ways to make better academic use of the research parks with an orientation toward product creation; and developing better mechanisms for enhancing and invigorating research. A major area of discussion was the importance of creating multidisciplinary research opportunities within and beyond the established departmental structure.

"This is a time of opportunity for science and technology at U.Va.," said commission chair Anita Jones, in her opening remarks. "Our job is to listen, ask questions and evaluate what we learn as we begin working toward recommendations for the University."

The commission's ultimate goal is to develop strategies that will advance the University in coming years as a national leader in selected areas of the sciences and engineering.

During the opening session of the workshop, U.Va. President John T. Casteen III told the group that they are building from a good research funding foundation. He said the commission should recognize that space is a critical issue not easily solved, and that a variety of sources of funding should be considered beyond state funding, which has diminished over the years. Interdisciplinary initiatives and joint initiatives with Virginia Tech and other institutions are potential avenues of growth, he said. The University must look beyond identifying possibilities, and instead identify strategies for making difficult choices, he added.

Paul Torgersen, president of Virginia Tech, said that his institution is interested in potential collaborations with U.Va., and that this may be a clear route for both institutions to leverage support from the commonwealth and other funding sources.

The commission determined that any eventual recommendations to the University should share several common criteria. These include:

  • improving and shaping undergraduate and graduate education;
  • using the research parks;
  • aiding individual researchers as well as enhancing centers and departments;
  • establishing a "critical mass" in focused areas;
  • responding to societal needs;
  • being "salable" on multiple levels, such as to department chairs, the public, government, the administration and industry;
  • involving external "stake holders";
  • being proactive in the funding climate while being flexible to changing funding trends;
  • creating opportunities beyond core groups;
  • and developing new resources through intellectual property rights.

"While different universities followed very different plans, we found some common attributes that characterized all of the successful programs to advance science and technology at other universities," Jones said. "Each had a focused strategy and the resources to commence execution of that strategy. And the university involved pursued the strategy intently over years."

The commission's next step is to begin a dialogue with various members of the University community and to hold meetings with external constituents such as the Northern Virginia Economic Council. The commission will continue to identify opportunities and themes that cut across disciplines, Jones said. Members will look at such actions as seed funding, land and research parks, additional case studies and the development of a business plan. They will also explore the University's advantages, such as high overall rankings.

Jones told the commission she would like a "first-cut" draft of possible recommendations completed by the end of this semester for discussion on Grounds.


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