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NSF, state fund major life sciences initiative

David Weir, director of the Delaware Biotechnology Institute, opens the news conference, attended by (from left) Delaware Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, Sherry Farwell of the National Science Foundation and UD President David Roselle.
5:23 p.m., April 25, 2005--The National Science Foundation and the state of Delaware have awarded $9 million to a partnership of the state’s institutions of higher education, led by the Delaware Biotechnology Institute and the University of Delaware, to fund new research in the life sciences.

Participating in the partnership alongside DBI and UD are Delaware State University, Delaware Technical and Community College and Wesley College.

The NSF has awarded a research infrastructure improvement grant of $6 million to the partnership through its Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR), and the state has committed $3 million in matching funds.

In addition to research, the funding will be used for outreach and education programs and to generate consideration of ethics and public policy in light of the rapid advances in the physical and biological sciences.

The funding also will have a strong economic development component, as novel research generated by the grants is expected to eventually reach the marketplace and thereby lead to the creation of new jobs in the state.

Delaware Gov. Ruth Ann Minner
Key benefits of the funding, which was announced during a press conference held Monday morning at the Delaware Public Archives Building in Dover, will be the acquisition of needed instrumentation to undertake leading-edge research and the creation of professional networks to enhance collaborative efforts among the institutions.

"My administration has worked diligently over the last five years to promote, build and grow our life science and biotechnology cluster here in Delaware," Gov. Ruth Ann Minner said. "We have sown the seeds to ensure this innovative and promising field will continue to grow for years to come. If you look at our field of life science and biotechnology today, you will see how this vital industry is beginning to gain momentum from the initial effort and investment made by the state, academia and our industry partners."

“The University of Delaware and its partner organizations have already developed a considerable capacity for research in biotechnology, and we are confident that the NSF grant, combined with funding from the state, will increase the capacity of all of the partner organizations,” UD President David P. Roselle said.

"Delaware is a leader in research and developing new technologies. We've got top-notch educators and scientists, and this grant will help bring some of their knowledge and experience to groups that have otherwise been left out,” U.S. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) said.

U.S. Sen. Thomas Carper
“I am so proud that the Delaware Biotechnology Institute and local students will benefit from this grant,” U.S. Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.) said. “Many of the country’s future leaders in the science community receive their education in Delaware, and this money will expand their scope of learning, broadening horizons for all of us.”

"Delaware's history includes a culture of scientific and technological discovery, innovation and leadership. This funding--by providing for research infrastructure, professional communication networks and much-needed equipment--will allow our state to continue its position as a region of excellence in life science-based discovery in research and education,” U.S. Rep. Michael N. Castle (R-Del.) said. “This has both scientific and economic implications for our state, and I believe we will see great things as a result of this funding.”

The project is designed to build an infrastructure of people, programs and equipment and to develop a culture of interdisciplinary collaboration around research in complex environmental systems and ecosystem health, Sherry Farwell, who leads the NSF’s EPSCoR office, said. Through such infrastructure development, researchers in the state will be able to compete more successfully for federal grants and contribute broadly to national science initiatives.

Furthermore, the project is designed to build on the state’s existing economic development initiative, which stresses the life sciences as a major area of opportunity, and to stimulate an increased level of involvement of the academic community in the initiative.

U.S. Rep. Michael Castle
Farwell lauded the cooperation among various organizations in the state, particularly the academic institutions, and expressed optimism about the future of the effort. “We are betting $6 million of NSF’s funds that you will be successful,” he said.

The research component of the funding involves UD, DBI, Delaware State and Wesley, which will work together to develop a major new area of interest that draws on the institutions’ capabilities in plant, soil and marine science, as well as in bio-nanotechnology and environmental ecology.

The goal is to investigate complex microbial systems and their interrelationships in order to determine and predict their impact on the health of the ecosystem.

UD and DBI are combining genomics-based technologies with new tools in environmental biogeochemistry to conduct fundamental research in nanoscale science and engineering. Delaware State plans to bring together faculty from across the institution to create an interdisciplinary focus on terrestrial and marine ecosystem issues, and Wesley plans an interdisciplinary environmental sciences and policy program with an emphasis on ecosystem health.

After the news conference, Martha James (left), assistant program director at NSF, and Sherry Farwell (right), office head of NSF’s EPSCoR program, tour the Delaware Biotechnology Institute in Newark, led by Karl Steiner, associate director of DBI.
All of the partner institutions plan to work cooperatively in an outreach effort targeting women, underrepresented groups and underserved rural populations in southern Delaware. The focus will be on undergraduate research and career opportunities, new biotechnology degree programs at Delaware Technical and Community College campuses and the stimulation of interest in the life sciences among middle school teachers and students.

The ethics and public policy component will create a statewide forum to spread knowledge and create understanding of important ethical and policy issues arising as a result of the rapid advances in the life sciences.

The EPSCoR project will be managed by the Delaware Biotechnology Institute, under the leadership of DBI Director David Weir, who said the funding will have a significant impact. “A life sciences center is developing in Delaware,” he said, “and that is important to the local economy as we move into the future. This grant marks an important milestone in our efforts to build major research capabilities in the life sciences.”

Article by Neil Thomas
Photos by Jon Cox

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