Mission: Impossible

The Arizona Legislature may prove to be too much for ASU's unsinkable Michael Crow

Besides casting doubt on ASU's economic impact projections, critics of the research bill also say there is no reason for taxpayers to subsidize research that ultimately benefits the private sector, and that the marketplace will sort out research investment decisions more efficiently than government.

Crow says such an approach is a fundamental misunderstanding of how the marketplace functions in science and technology.

"Industry has given up basic science and basic discovery and that's been relegated to the government as a function," Crow says. "The government then funds the universities and others to do the basic discoveries. Universities make these discoveries and then transfer them to industries."

ASU's president Michael Crow
Emily Piraino
ASU's president Michael Crow
Arizona regent Chris Herstam says he didn't know about Michael Crow's CIA affiliation prior to Crow being named ASU president  in March 2002.
Arizona regent Chris Herstam says he didn't know about Michael Crow's CIA affiliation prior to Crow being named ASU president in March 2002.

ASU, Crow says, can't attract major federal grants to conduct basic science unless it has the proper research facilities in place. ASU has not built a new research facility since it completed the Goldwater Engineering Center in the early 1990s.

"What we are looking for is the means to compete in that game which is the production of the science base from which the economic growth follows," he says.

If ASU's projections of at least $50 million a year in new external grants stemming from the research projects hold true, it still leaves ASU a long way from joining the elite research universities in the country.

But it would be a major step forward in advancing the university's research base.

And, Crow insists, the first wave of biodesign research labs is just the beginning of his long-term plans. ASU also intends to invest heavily in research facilities for at least two other general areas -- urban ecology and planetary studies.

Crow also promises to land a significant amount of private gifts that can be earmarked for research comparable to the $50 million grant given to the business college by New York real estate tycoon William P. Carey.

"We've got other gifts of that scale in motion right now," he says.

Crow refused to say where additional money might be coming from. But a regent, who asked not to be named, confirmed separately that one potential gift is in the $150 million range.

Increasing the flow of research dollars into the university has benefits far beyond the financial numbers game.

Research opportunities attract creative people such as Poste to the university, who in turn will attract like minds that branch far beyond science and technology and into the arts. Before long, a creative web begins to grow and soon an entire community is transformed.

"It is the amalgamation of writers, artists, potters, scientists, a whole group of people you bring together that transforms a place and drives it forward," Crow says.

A key indicator of the cultural creativity in a region comes from a surprisingly nerdy sector, he says.

"How many geeks do you have in the university sitting in their labs with dozens and dozens of graduate students?" he asks.

The answer right now, Crow says, is a resounding not enough.

Contact the author at his online address: john.dougherty@newtimes.com

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