WSU Says State Investment Offers Big Dividends

PULLMAN, Wash. — A ten-fold return on investment and hundreds of new jobs in the state could be realized in 10 years with budget support for research programs in emerging technologies, Washington State University has told state officials.
WSU is seeking $3 million in its 1999-2001 operating budget to fund the proposed Advanced Technology Initiative. The funds would create “faculty clusters” to work on problems considered critical to the success of the next generation of Washington companies.
Three ATI areas identified for concentration by WSU are semiconductor manufacturing, reproductive biology and precision agriculture. Each has significant potential for Washington business, and builds on university strengths. The three areas are also university federal priorities, according to George Hedge, vice provost for research.
Supporting research and development in these emerging technologies will place the region in a strategic position for establishing new business ventures as technology transfer moves science and engineering discoveries into the applied realm, Hedge said.
The focus of WSU’s efforts in semiconductor manufacturing will be in materials innovation, manufacturing and design of integrated semiconductor systems. With the ATI funding, WSU can assemble the technical staff necessary to diagnose flaws in microchip products from Northwest electronics plants. This kind of technical resource offered by WSU helped convince firms like Taiwan Semiconductor to invest in Southwest Washington, the vice provost said.
WSU currently has a nationally recognized Center for the Design of Analog/Digital Integrated Circuits, which is supported by the National Science Foundation and through partnerships with 25 private companies.
Support of the semiconductor research initiative would result in significant educational and economic gains through the partnerships of university, state and federal government, and industry, Hedge said. The initiative would also support a larger undergraduate program with 50-100 additional students in fields where highly trained employees are needed.
Reproductive biology impacts all areas of the biological sciences from human health to environmental ecology. Research addresses problems of food production, endangered species, environmental toxicology, human diseases such as reproductive cancer and fertility, and the basic fitness of every plant and animal species in the state.
WSU’s existing Center for Reproductive Biology is an interdisciplinary program involving more than three dozen scientists in the colleges of sciences, agriculture and home economics, and veterinary medicine. Research by the center has resulted in the recent establishment of three biotech firms employing 30 people.
It is estimated that successful funding of a research cluster in reproductive biology could produce 100 new jobs for scientists and technicians in the upcoming biennium.
There are several emerging technologies involved in the concept of precision agriculture, and WSU is pioneering research in many of those areas, such as advanced sensing, wireless communications, satellite communications and computer-aided diagnostics.
With the state ranking second behind California in its diversity of valuable farm commodities, Washington is considered an ideal location to investigate the applications of new technologies for agriculture, Hedge said. Lower production costs and more environmentally friendly production systems would be the benefits of the applications.
The university is confident that many of the current obstacles to Washington farmers using these new tools can be overcome by this new research cluster dedicated to finding solutions and transferring information to the field, Hedge said.
He said that the funding for ATI, at $1.5 million in each year of the biennium, would support 15.5 new research faculty and technicians. Leading each “cluster” would be a senior research professor with additional faculty and technicians to provide a critical mass of talent in each selected area. The leader would have a demonstrated ability to work with industry, a recognized national reputation and an entrepreneurial bent.
The ATI is seen as an extension of WSU’s historical role of helping industry and agriculture capitalize on scientific and engineering discoveries that have produced hundreds of millions of dollars of value-added products for the state’s economy.
“Nearly every segment of our economy, especially agriculture, has an imprint of contribution by WSU. The areas defined in this initiative have the potential for major economic contributions to the state with appropriate nurturing and support,” Hedge said.