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September 29, 2005

UW researchers to lawmakers: Thanks for past, future support

News and Information

The message from UW researchers to state legislators was clear: “Thank you! Your past support of technological research helped us greatly. Now — what investments can we interest you in next?”

The occasion was a visit with state Rep. Helen Sommers, D-Seattle, chair of the House Appropriations Committee, and other representatives and staff, for a tour of UW sites in Bothell, South Lake Union and the Seattle campus, and discussions of the UW’s current and future research activities.

The researchers updated Sommers and her colleagues on the status of the Advanced Technology Initiatives the Legislature gave special funding for in 1999 and renewed in 2002. Advanced Technology Initiatives, or ATIs, are partnerships among the legislature, private business and the state’s research universities to innovate programs targeted at creating new industries and transforming old ones into new opportunities.

The legislators heard short comments from President Mark Emmert before being briefed on technology initiatives by Malcolm Parks, associate vice provost for research. “What you have done in the past has worked,” Parks told the legislators. He described research advances in the study of the genetic background for infectious diseases; in “precision forestry” technologies so advanced they can provide information on individual trees from a plane flying overhead; and state-of-the-art technologies in computer animation. The ATI funding also enabled the UW to hire world-class faculty in these areas, he said.

Sommers said, “The ATI was a new idea — essentially what we were doing is buying the brain power. We funded the talent.” A colleague said, “And we want to do it again,” to which Sommers agreed.

Following this were descriptions of existing innovative programs the legislators might consider for future funding help.

Mary Lidstrom, associate dean for new initiatives in the College of Engineering, discussed nanotechnology, which she said “cuts across the whole campus” in its vast array of practical uses. Lidstrom noted that UW has the first Ph.D. program nationally in nanotechnolgy, and described efforts to recruit a well-respected expert in the field. “We do have an opportunity for major leadership,” Lidstrom said. “The UW is poised to become a major player — in research, developing leaders and spinning off companies.”

Tom Daniel, chairman of the Biology Department, spoke about E-science, “the interface of science and computing,” which he said, “is going to transform both discovery and dissemination of information.” With so much data coming in via computer technology, Daniel said, e-science blurs boundaries, both between disciplines and between “learners and discoverers.” He summed up saying, “The take-home message is that science is increasingly dependent on computer technologies.” Science and computing are now “inextricably linked — computing drives new science and new science drives computing.”

UW President Emeritus Lee Huntsman spoke about the Life Sciences Discovery Fund, a public-private partnership funded by the state and dedicated to furthering life sciences research. Huntsman stressed that the researchers whose work is aided by the fund also are excellent classroom teachers, helping to create the next generation of researchers. He thanked the lawmakers for creating the fund, and said the funding help will be used in ways the state and UW will be proud of.

“Research,” Huntsman said, “is an industry in and of itself, and a very good one, thank you. It imports money, and exports hope.”

A tour of the Chemistry Department’s facilities in Bagley Hall followed, led by Alvin Kwiram, professor of chemistry, and a final information session. This was about photonics, which is the use of photons rather than electrons to carry electric current, to increase capacity exponentially while reducing the needed cable from a thicket of lines to one virtually the width of a human hair. Photonics may find practical applications in the telecommunications, computing, transportation, construction and defense industries, the researchers said.

After their meeting and tour of Bagley, the researchers and legislators toured the UW’s Blue Flame Building on Mercer Street and heard a presentation on South Lake Union UW Medicine before returning to Olympia.