July 12-25, 2002
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Ariel Gomez
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Research goals on track, despite roadblocks

By Fariss Samarrai

If U.Va. is to advance to the highest ranks nationally in the coming decades, education and research must be viewed as two parts of the same process, says Ariel Gomez, interim vice president for research and public service.

“A researcher is a student who passes on discoveries to others,” he said. “We need to invest in both. These are not separate issues.”

Recently the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia released a report that faulted the Commonwealth’s emphasis on undergraduate education at the expense of graduate education and research. The report noted that Virginia universities are falling behind universities in states where more resources are put into research.

Presently only U.Va. and Virginia Tech are ranked among the top 100 universities nationally in research spending. With continuing budget cuts, space shortages and inadequate equipment, Virginia universities could fall further behind. This also could slow economic development.

“Fortunately we have a supportive governor who has expressed great interest in moving academic research forward,” Gomez said. “He knows the essential role of research for improving education, generating jobs, attracting industry and enhancing quality of life.”

Gov. Mark R. Warner plans to hold a summit on research this fall.
Gomez said that despite a tight budget, U.Va.’s 2020 strategic plan will be instrumental for achieving excellence and higher rankings.

“The 2020 plan is closely aligned with federal research priorities,” he said. “The federal government is prioritizing genetics and proteomics research, for instance. We are prioritizing those and developmental biology through the new Institute for Morphogenesis and Regenerative Medicine. We have the opportunity to be the best in these fields because we have the expertise and organizational structures. It’s now a matter of dedicating the resources.”

Research in these areas involves developing understanding of how tissues and organs develop and applying this knowledge to repairing or regenerating organs and tissues.

“The federal government also is prioritizing information technology research and nanoscale science and engineering,” Gomez said. “Again, we are emphasizing research in these areas and have excellent faculty already on board. We are ahead of the curve and poised to capitalize on federal funding priorities. We will synergise efforts, increase the level of the science and continually improve the quality of our graduate students. Everybody will benefit.”

The roadblocks, however, are space and equipment shortages, and budget cuts at the state level. The SCHEV report notes that Virginia institutions should have at least 800 square feet of space per $100,000 of research spending.

“Based on that, U.Va. needs about an additional 1 million square feet of new research space,” Gomez said. “We’ve determined that we need at least 500,000 square feet of new space to function efficiently.”

Examples of this additional space will be Medical Research Building 6, renovations and new space in the College, and in future biodifferentiation and nanotechnology buildings. A bond referendum that will be on the ballot Nov. 5 includes funding for some of these projects.

“The University is very efficient in its use of resources, but we are operating at maximum capacity for space and instrumentation,” Gomez said.

SCHEV also cited a need for sophisticated research equipment despite new budget restrictions for the equipment trust fund, Gomez said. “We are doing our best to retain and attract the best scholars and scientists. We are trying to be creative to assure that those individuals add strength to our programs.

Gomez takes issue with one part of the SCHEV report, which states that, “Virginia’s faculty are not generating as much research support as their peers nationally, based on research expenditures per full-time faculty.”

In U.Va.’s case, this is based on the National Science Foundation’s ranking of the University at 58 nationally for research and development expenditures from federal, state, local, industry and institutional funding sources.

Gomez said the rankings are somewhat misleading because they average a university’s research funding by total number of faculty without noting that universities with large and outstanding humanities departments, such as U.Va.’s, tend to appear less well funded than schools with large scientific and engineering faculties.

“If we were to look only at the funding of our scientific and engineering faculty, compared to similar faculty at other universities, we would be ranked at about 27 nationally,” he said.

Additionally, the University also has increased its sponsored research funding by 94 percent during the past five years.

To be competitive nationally, Virginia universities will have to cooperate more in areas of shared strength, Gomez said. And his office is in the process of hiring a director of industry relations to develop new initiatives for teaming up U.Va. faculty research projects with the needs of industry. The University also is engaged in other projects to enhance research such as the Ivy Biomedical Foundation, the research parks, the Commonwealth Technology Research Fund, Virginia Gateway, and a program called Funding Excellence in Science and Technology, an internal grant program to support the most innovative research ideas of the faculty.

“FEST is an excellent example of an economical use of University resources,” Gomez said. “A recent $100,000 FEST grant to biomedical engineering helped leverage a $3.6 million NIH award to study the growth of blood vessels and kidney development. This is a 36 to 1 return on our investment. Endowing FEST is a maximum priority.”

Gomez said U.Va. likely is on track to becoming a top research institution in coming years.

“We’ll get there,” he said, “because we have great faculty and students, a very supportive administration, a solid strategic plan and a history of economical use of our resources.”



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