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Gunda Georg.

After 22 years at Kansas, Gunda Georg is looking forward to collaborations with other scientists at the U. "All my research has been interdisciplinary--bringing in teams of people who complement each other with their skills," she says. "That's what I hope to do here."

Seeking an edge in the biomedical sciences

U hopes to secure long-term funding for cutting edge research

By Rick Moore

From M, spring 2007; updated April 5, 2007

There's no shortage of activity in the shiny new labs with the bright blue floors at 717 Delaware Street. Here, Gunda Georg's cadre of 27 research associates are settling in and developing novel ways to treat people with brain cancer and Alzheimer's disease.

One of their projects will be working with the drug Taxol, which has been used to effectively treat ovarian and breast cancer. Georg is hoping to use the drug in the brain, but the problem is that Taxol, as she describes, is a "big, greasy molecule" that cannot get into the brain; a natural "pump" there--a human defense mechanism--sends it back out. Her team is attempting to modify the Taxol molecule in such a way that it can make it across the so-called blood-brain barrier.

By all accounts, Georg is a world-renowned researcher; in fact, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has identified her as among the top 5 percent of researchers receiving NIH funding over the last quarter century. For the past 22 years she has built her fame at the University of Kansas, but the University of Minnesota recently lured her here, where she holds the Robert Vince Endowed Chair and McKnight Presidential Chair in Medicinal Chemistry.

Biennial budget request at a glance

The University of Minnesota has an ambitious and tangible plan to increase its competitiveness among the world's top research universities.

Now U officials are turning to the Minnesota State Legislature for the funding support necessary to both sustain the U's current quality and competitiveness and invest in the plan to transform the University.

The U's biennial budget request (for fiscal years 2008 and 2009) calls for $182.3 million in new state funds. State funding accounts for approximately 25 percent of the University's total budget and represents an important source of funding for the U's education, research, and outreach missions.

One part of the budget request focuses on enhancing the University's core mission and competitive position. The primary component of this is general compensation for faculty and staff. Other areas include investments in advancing education--through efforts such as an undergraduate writing initiative and expanded academic advising and undergraduate research opportunities--as well as in technology and research infrastructure and facilities, operations, and maintenance.

A second part of the budget request focuses on investments that will help to "create Minnesota's future." Included are new investments in the health workforce and clinical sciences; science and engineering programs; and the environment, agricultural systems, and renewable energy. In addition, this funding would help to ensure that the U can recruit and retain world-class faculty and staff.

That only happened because the U was able to promise Georg state-of-the-art labs on campus to support her work.

"Only once it was made clear there would be space to move into, could I even consider coming here," says Georg. "It's a challenge for [any university] to have that kind of space available."

The circumstances around Georg's hire are the perfect illustration of a perpetual dilemma facing the U. To remain competitive, let alone to gain ground on its top-ranked peers, the University needs to be able to expand its ability to hire world-class faculty, and a precondition for bringing in the best talent is having technologically sophisticated space lined up for them. And this requires the ability to look further out on the horizon when planning for new buildings.

A new idea for long-term funding

That's why the University is turning to the Minnesota State Legislature to fund the Biomedical Sciences Research Facilities Authority, which would authorize the issuance of $310 million in bonds ($279 million in state general obligation debt and $31 million in University-issued bonds) and enable the University to construct four new research buildings--plus finish the renovation at 717 Delaware--over the next eight years.

The buildings would be hubs for interdisciplinary research like Georg's. Each would allow the U to house 40 new faculty researchers and 120 research assistants, and it's expected that each building would attract $20 million in new research dollars annually.

The proposal for the Biomedical Sciences Research Facilities Authority originally went to the legislature last year, where it passed in the Senate but not in the House. So far this year, the legislation has passed in the Senate again, but it was not included in the House of Representatives' capital investment bill. The two bodies will resolve their differences in a conference committee later this month.

"I believe this Biomedical Sciences Research Facilities Authority is indispensable to our future," President Bob Bruininks told the House Biosciences and Emerging Technology Committee at a hearing in late January.

According to Bruininks, some 20-25 states already have major long-term investments in the biosciences, including California, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Washington. Lack of funding might be understandable if Minnesota were lagging behind other states in biomedical sciences accomplishments and acumen, but this is the state that spawned Medtronic, Guidant, and St. Jude Medical, and that currently has more than 500 biomedical and related businesses employing some 250,000 people. "Minnesota is not some backwater state in this area," Bruininks says. The investment must be made in the bioscience research that feeds the biotechnology industry, adds Frank Cerra, the U's senior vice president for health sciences. "The only institution that can do that for health, industry, and agriculture is the University," he says. "It is a unique capability and needs to be invested in now."

In an age of heightened competitiveness among the country's top research universities, the best-equipped campuses get the best new research superstars. "If they have the choice between three different places and one has superb space, they will go there--all things being equal," says Georg.

And the health of Minnesota's economy may be on the line, as Cerra suggested to the House committee in January: "Do [we] want to be a fly-over state when it comes to biosciences, and give away the richness that we have today to the east and west coasts? That is what's at stake."

To learn more about the U's biennial budget request or capital request, including the Biomedical Sciences Research Facilities Authority, visit the Office of Government and Community Relations Web site.

On April 1, the Star Tribune published a commentary written by former Vice President Walter Mondale and former Minnesota governor Arne Carlson supporting the Minnesota Biomedical Sciences Research Facilities Authority. Click here to read the article.