Mass High Tech: Massachusetts science, tech strategy should include its public university system

Mass High Tech: Massachusetts science, tech strategy should include its public university system

Although the Massachusetts economy is clearly dependent on technological innovation, state leaders have traditionally felt that there was no need for a state science and technology (S&T) strategy.

Mass Insight president William Guenther has aptly described our historic approach to building a high tech economy as: "We're smart, send money."

But today, a new generation of state, industry and academic leaders has recognized the new realities of economic competitiveness. They have wisely determined that Massachusetts must be proactive in developing its S&T base, commercializing its technology and building a skilled workforce.

This shift in thinking can be seen in the passage of a $100 million S&T-driven economic stimulus bill and in the widespread support for "Choosing to Lead," Mass Insight's technology roadmap for the state.

If Massachusetts and all its diverse regions is to be truly competitive, and if the state is to take full advantage of the opportunities highlighted by the new legislation and roadmap, then the University of Massachusetts must take on a new leadership role. We must make clear that the path to social and economic development of Massachusetts goes through UMass.

The state's most important investment in developing a knowledge-based economy is the one it makes in UMass.

Why do I say this? UMass is the state's public research university. It is the only university with a mission to serve as a statewide, high-quality learning and discovery institution that helps transform the lives of students, communities and regions throughout all of Massachusetts.

UMass is a major provider of university-level education, educating more state residents for our knowledge-based economy than any university, and with about 75 percent of its graduates staying to live and work here.

It is a leading-edge center of research and development, with $320 million in annual sponsored R&D, ranking No. 3 in Massachusetts and No. 4 in New England, and with a rate of growth faster than U.S. or state averages.

Its medical center is home to the No. 1 scientific discovery in the U.S. in 2002: in the field of RNA interference (gene silencing) as selected by Science magazine (and re-selected among the top 10 in 2003).

UMass is the leading center of R&D outside Route 128, with Amherst, Dartmouth, Lowell and Worcester each being the largest university research center in its region, and with UMass campuses performing over 90 percent of university R&D outside Route 128.

The university is a leading source of innovation in several regions, serving as the base for a biotech park in Worcester, the anchor for the re-development of the Boston State Hospital site, the sponsor of tech incubators in Fall River and Lowell, the principal R&D partner for Bay State Medical Center in Springfield, and the lead for a major IT education collaborative in Greater Boston.

UMass was the winner in three federal competitions for national R&D centers in the past year: atmospheric sensing at Amherst (in partnership with Raytheon); immunology at Worcester; and botulinum at Dartmouth (with Tufts University). It is now competing for a fourth in nanotechnology manufacturing at Lowell (with Northeastern University).

It is a nationally-ranked center of technology commercialization, ranking in the top 20 of U.S. universities in technology licensing income generated annually, and the home of a new statewide tech transfer center to link public and private universities with Massachusetts industry.

UMass Online offers high quality, distance education, serving 15,000 students, winning national awards, and emerging as one of the largest distance learning programs among accredited universities in the U.S.

Finally, UMass is an increasingly successful entrepreneurial organization, generating over $1.2 billion and about 75 percent of its $1.6 billion annual budget from non-state sources.

Fortunately, I'm not alone in my views of the increasingly important role for UMass.

Industry leaders at the Massachusetts High Technology Council have identified boosting the University of Massachusetts as a premier public university as a major public policy objective.

Mass Insight has identified UMass as one of the state's key economic drivers in its Choosing to Leadreport.

And Mass Taxpayers Foundation has developed a comprehensive agenda to reform state policies for UMass to achieve new levels of excellence as the state's public research university.

Since its creation in 1991, UMass has developed into a very good public university system, one that is much better and that has contributed much more to the commonwealth than is commonly recognized. But given the state's economic and social challenges, we can and must do much more.

With continued state support and policy reforms, with increased private sector support and new strategic alliances, and with an increasingly entrepreneurial approach within the university itself, UMass can emerge as one of America's premier public university systems.

This is not wishful thinking. This is essential if all of Massachusetts citizens, communities and regions are to prosper in the 21st century.

Jack Wilson is the president of the University of Massachusetts.

Date: 08/02/04