April 25, 2011
By: by The Chronicle of Higher Education, Paul Basken
By now it's a familiar wager. With its 20th-century manufacturing base withered, a mid-size city bets on the brain trust at the local public university to identify and develop a hot new technology that will spark an economic renaissance.
In Greensboro, N.C., the decaying industries are textiles, furniture, and tobacco. The colleges are North Carolina A&T State University and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. And the hoped-for savior is nanotechnology.
Nanotechnology-designing and creating at the molecular scale-sounds powerful and futuristic, and in many ways it is. It has lots of potential applications in advances such as high-performance airplane wings, superfast computer chips, and even tiny medical devices that can perform their own diagnoses inside a patient.
The federal government has recognized nanotechnology's potential and spent almost $14-billion promoting it since 2001. When support from various states is included, nanotechnology is sometimes called the nation's best-financed science initiative since the space race-a situation not lost on local boosters here, like John W. Hardin, executive director of the Office of Science and Technology at the North Carolina Department of Commerce.
The city's bid to grab a large chunk of that pie takes the form of the Joint School of Nanoscience & Nanoengineering, whose $64-million glass-and-steel home is now rising at Gateway University Research Park. The park is just a few miles south and east of the campuses of North Carolina at Greensboro and North Carolina A&T, its joint owners.
If all goes well, that $64-million in state money-along with about $5-million a year in researchers' salaries and operational costs-will be parlayed within 10 years into hundreds of new jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars of new private investment.
"I typically use '4x,'" says James G. Ryan, founding dean of the new joint school, referring to his estimate of the state's return on its investment. Considering that each job in a university research park typically spurs another two and a half jobs in the community, a fourfold payback is "is a conservative estimate," says Mr. Ryan, who helped build a similar university program in New York state.
Some experts in the field are less optimistic. Among their concerns: the State of North Carolina and UNC-Greensboro might not spend enough to get the job done. The two partnering universities might not have the necessary research expertise (North Carolina A&T ranks 210th nationwide in university research expenditures, according to the National Science Foundation, and Greensboro ranks 301st, making both small players in this world).
Companies might not want to locate in Greensboro. Or technology¬-nano or otherwise-might evolve in some unanticipated way. In short, North Carolina might not be able to become a "king of nanotechnology" just by declaring itself a king of nanotechnology.
And among approximately 100 university-affiliated research parks throughout the country, experts say, many are falling short of expectations. There are not enough data to say why.
Even at major research institutions such as Northwestern University and the University of Wisconsin at Madison, research parks are struggling, says Burton A. Weisbrod, a professor of economics at Northwestern and one of the authors of Mission and Money: Understanding the University, a study of the ways universities finance their operations. North Carolina has had a major success with Research Triangle Park, an hour east of Greensboro. But in other parts of the country, some university research parks have taken unrelated tenants, such as financial-services companies, to pay the bills, Mr. Weisbrod says.
"There is likely a spectacular future in nanotechnology," he says. "But it is a very large leap" to suggest that a strong future in nanotechnology means North Carolina will see a quadruple return on its money.
Daniel Lee Kleinman, a professor of community and environmental sociology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison who contributed to the book The Commodification of Academic Research, says universities like Greensboro's may be merely using "the rhetoric of their role" as economic-development engines as a means of winning state support.
That tactic could harm the universities in the long run by weakening the broader higher-education mission, Mr. Kleinman says. "If it becomes only a mechanism for occupational training and economic development," he says of the public-university system, "then a lot of the value of higher education is lost."
Then there's the question of whether North Carolina is doing enough. Mr. Ryan came to Greensboro from the State University of New York at Albany, where he helped build its College of Nanoscale Science & Engineering over the past decade. The college has helped convert some $900-million in public money, mostly from the state government in New York, into more than $6-billion in private investment from leading high-tech companies.
The college's chief executive officer, Alain E. Kaloyeros, admires Mr. Ryan but says he faces a big challenge in trying to replicate his New York success on North Carolina's far more modest budget.
Consider, for example, the type of machine used to etch tiny electronic chips. Albany's current model, which uses light waves to carve tiny patterns, cost $75-million-more than the total North Carolina is spending on its Gateway park building and equipment. A newer version, which will use ultraviolet light to cut patterns with an even tinier wavelength, will arrive in Albany next year at a cost of $175-million.
That's the kind of tool that few universities or companies can afford, Mr. Kaloyeros says. And because his institution has it, companies have adopted a much more cooperative style-an acropolis approach, he calls it, in deference to his Greek heritage-than is typical in university research parks. In Albany, companies send their in-house scientists to participate in joint research projects, rather than keeping their work private and sharing only when necessary.
Mr. Ryan may not have the resources to build his own acropolis in Greensboro, Mr. Kaloyeros says. But the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and North Carolina A&T could find rewards nonetheless. The most important gain in Greensboro may not be Albany's huge research profits, he says, but the realization that students of the future have to be trained in an interdisciplinary fashion to understand how fields such as physics, chemistry, and biology overlap in the microscopic world. The National Science Foundation has estimated a need for at least two million nanotech-savvy employees in the United States within about five years, Mr. Kaloyeros says. "But nobody is producing them."
That may ultimately be the scale of ambition that best fits a university community such as Greensboro, says Jack Uldrich, a futurist and author of books exploring nanotechnology. "We're really just at the early stages of appreciating how nanotechnology will affect our economy," he says. "So to the degree which North Carolina is getting workers ready for the fields of the future, it will absolutely see a return on its investment."
Mr. Ryan says he understands Greensboro won't have the advantages he and Mr. Kaloyeros had in Albany. "The investment from New York State has been very high and very generous," Mr. Ryan says.
But both efforts, he says, share a model for promoting nanotechnology that will improve students' education and create good local jobs, he says. Even on North Carolina's smaller scale, Mr. Ryan says, "the principle still applies."