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Last modified: Wednesday, February 2, 2005

Life sciences research at IU has long-term benefits for all

Indiana's new governor, Mitch Daniels, has initiated a public policy discussion of great importance to the future of our state -- what must Indiana do to create new jobs and make itself significantly more competitive in a global economy? It is vital that we make the right choices.

I believe we have already made one correct choice, a choice that has advanced Indiana down the path to world-class competitiveness further than we may realize.

President Adam Herbert, Indiana University

Photo by: Chris Meyer

IU President Adam Herbert

Print-Quality Photo

Five years ago, the governor, legislature and a number of business and civic leaders recognized that Indiana is ideally situated to develop a new industrial base in the life sciences.

They recognized that significant advances were possible through greater focus and coordinated effort among the major stakeholders -- state government, our pharmaceutical and health industries, and the state's research universities.

We are off to a great start. Indiana University has a number of leading life sciences researchers working in Bloomington and at the IU School of Medicine. They provide the strong intellectual foundation upon which we are building.

Over the past four years, Indiana University has been the beneficiary of millions of dollars in both public and private investment to expand our basic research capabilities in the life sciences. These investments are paying dividends that will continue for many years to come.

The state has invested almost $9 million to help IU win research grants. The Lilly Endowment provided $155 million for the Indiana Genomics Initiative based in Indianapolis and $53 million for the METACyt Research Initiative at Bloomington. (The word METACyt is a combination of two disciplines -- metabolomics, which is the study of chemical compounds involved in cellular metabolism, and cytomics, which is the study of cell function generally.)

We are using this funding to build, equip and operate world-class laboratories on the Bloomington campus and at the IU School of Medicine in Indianapolis. Our scientists are developing the world's finest and most accurate measuring devices for genetic research. These devices can generate a gigabyte of raw data a minute. To handle this crush of data, we have established one of the world's biggest and fastest supercomputing networks that links Bloomington with Indianapolis and West Lafayette.

These resources also are providing the support base needed to recruit and retain researchers who are preeminent in their fields. We will recruit many more in the months to come.

The basic life sciences research that we are conducting is advancing the boundaries of knowledge at a dizzying pace. Our faculty are rapidly unlocking the secrets of life carried in the genetic code. They are learning precisely what triggers and drives the extraordinarily complex chemistry within a single cell. This knowledge will bring about profound changes in the lives of our children and grandchildren.

The discoveries now being made in our basic research laboratories in Indianapolis and Bloomington will someday be the basis of medicines that are genetically tailored to individual patients. The day will come when human beings will live their lives without fear of cancer, heart disease and a variety of other serious illnesses that cut lives short.

IU is well on the way to becoming a recognized national leader in these areas of research. Appropriately, I have designated the life sciences as one of IU's highest research priorities.

How does this type of fundamental research into the life sciences create jobs and improve Indiana's economic future? Is there really a connection?

For starters, outstanding scholars attract major research grants. At IU, awards for sponsored research have increased by 75 percent in the past five years to a total of $413 million in 2004. Taking into account payroll, purchases and construction projects, this translates into nearly 10,000 jobs, the equivalent of two Rolls Royce plants in Indianapolis or three GM truck plants in Fort Wayne.

Talent also attracts more talent. As we recruit more distinguished scientists to positions at IU, they in turn bring with them outstanding assistants and graduate students. Over time, this influx of intellectual capital will blossom into an entire community of people with knowledge in and enthusiasm for their specialized fields. Inevitably, some of these professionals will move into the private sector, where they use the knowledge gained from basic research to start their own companies or help existing enterprises bring new products to market.

We have created several mechanisms at IU to ensure that marketable innovations from our research laboratories can be quickly moved into the private sector for development and marketing by Indiana-based companies. These include: providing assistance with patents and licensing, securing venture capital and identifying suitable locations for manufacturing and marketing activities.

Similar processes can be seen in such bio-tech hotbeds as Boston's Route 128 and the Research Triangle of North Carolina, where strong basic research programs in academic settings are serving as catalysts for vigorous economic growth.

We can do it here, as well. Last year I challenged my colleagues at IU to double the amount of externally funded research grants at IU by the end of this decade. The achievement of this goal would increase IU's research activities to $800 million a year. Combine that level of research with the research activities under way at Purdue, and the result will be a critical mass of academic research in Indiana with enormous potential for economic development.

Not every state has the unique resources to create this kind of economic environment. Indiana does. We have a strong and diverse life sciences industry, a rapidly expanding research capacity in our universities and a supportive state government. It is working. We are already seeing a number of fledgling entrepreneurial ventures springing up on Indiana soil. There will be many more.

Gov. Daniels and the legislature are facing many difficult decisions as they craft a new state budget. Maintaining Indiana's progress as a life sciences center of excellence should be one of the easier choices they will have to make.

This opinion editorial by IU President Adam W. Herbert appeared exclusively in the Bloomington Herald-Times on Sunday Jan. 30, 2005