Mission: Impossible

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

Arizona State University president Michael Crow rolls across the conference room floor in a chair, grabs a potted plant and begins a lecture on his vision for ASU to become the world's leader in biodesign.

"This plant is biodesign," he says.

"Nature, evolution, designed this plant. This plant can convert light into energy. This plant can move water. This plant can communicate chemically. This plant can operate in a range of environments. This plant can produce energy and produce no heat as an offload. Every machine we build pollutes, produces heat. It's disruptive. What we have not figured out yet is how to duplicate this.

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.
George Poste brings immediate international prestige to the AZ Biodesign Institute.
George Poste brings immediate international prestige to the AZ Biodesign Institute.
Michael Crow discusses his visions of a new kind of university.
Emily Piraino
Michael Crow discusses his visions of a new kind of university.

"How do we figure out how to mimic nature? Through mimicking nature, how do we figure out how to make our systems more environmentally sustainable?"

ASU's newly created AZ Biodesign Institute, Crow says, may answer these questions. The institute will house researchers from a wide range of academic disciplines focused on solving these types of problems.

If they are successful, the payoffs could be immense -- from medical applications such as allowing quadriplegics to walk to a financial bonanza.

"We think there are huge economic possibilities," Crow says.

Since storming into Tempe last July as ASU's 16th president, 47-year-old Michael Crow has wasted nary a nanosecond in focusing his boundless energy on such formidable challenges.

He's dedicated his academic life to attaining the position he now has as president of one of the largest public universities in the nation. He's earned this title at a relatively young age.

Now, his goal is clear: to transform ASU, the nation's fourth largest university with 57,000 students, from a school famous for parties and future NFL stars into a research powerhouse that someday will rival the most prestigious of Ivory Towers.

"My main reason for coming here is that this is the most unique opportunity in the country to build a new kind of university," he says.

It will be a university that is focused simultaneously on conducting fundamental scientific research and developing marketable technology, a one-two combination Crow has studied for the last 25 years.

Carefully implementing his design for a "New American University" developed over more than a decade while a top administrator at Columbia University in New York City, Crow doesn't worry about bruising a few academic egos, especially those of his desert brethren, in his relentless effort to lift ASU above its current second-rate trajectory. Tenure, for example, is not to be taken for granted.

Crow is far more concerned at the moment with securing legislative approval to build the first new research facilities at ASU in more than a decade. Crow's plans to turn ASU into a major research institution hinge on the Legislature approving a plan to spend more than $400 million for research buildings at ASU, the University of Arizona and Northern Arizona University. ASU's share is about $185 million, nearly half the total pot.

And, as if reshaping ASU into the Stanford of the Desert won't be challenging enough, Crow wants more. He also wants ASU to serve as a catalyst to catapult the Phoenix economy from one based on rapid growth into a knowledge-based economy that will attract the world's top intellects, artists and craftsmen to the Valley.

He sees no reason Phoenix can't develop a dynamic cultural identity on a par with San Francisco.

After a year on the job, his bosses at the Board of Regents are duly impressed with his vision, but somewhat cautious of the projected outcomes.

"He's really brought an extraordinary vision to Arizona and helped us all think on a much bigger scale," says regents president Jack Jewett.

At the same time, Jewett is not expecting too much, too fast.

"In my experience, there are no silver bullets," he says.

Whether Crow's grand plan is even remotely achievable in Arizona's lowbrow political climate remains to be seen. But Crow's connections at the highest levels of academia and government indicate he might have the right stuff to succeed in such a bold endeavor.

Perhaps his most interesting connection -- and the one that may have significant ramifications for ASU -- is his tie to the Central Intelligence Agency, a relationship that was never openly discussed during his lengthy interview process for the job of running ASU. His intimate association with the agency was not known by the selection committee when he met with regents in March 2002.

The fact that a prospective candidate for president of a major public university is on the board of directors of an organization whose sole client is the CIA should have been grounds for serious debate.

The CIA's notorious history of atrocities, assassinations and support of tyrants who later became U.S. enemies has made the agency taboo on most American university campuses since the Vietnam War. Then the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in September 2001 cast the CIA in a more necessary, even favorable, role.

But the extent of Crow's CIA connection and whether that signals a willingness by Crow to have ASU engage in classified research for U.S. intelligence agencies has yet to be publicly discussed.

And, since his CIA links were first revealed in newspaper reports last fall, there has been a strong chorus of support from regents and nary a whisper of discontent among ASU faculty over the relationship.

Crow's jihad to propel ASU into the forefront of America's research institutions will not be an easy task -- particularly with a legislature whose leadership is dominated by conservative Mormon Republicans hell-bent on keeping taxes low and balancing the state budget by strangling education.

Even now, legislators want to slash $40 million from the universities' operating budgets for next year. Meanwhile, the Senate has yet to vote on the $400 million research bill. Crow may not know whether he's won this crucial round for many weeks.

The stakes are high.

Crow says there is no single mission more important to the university and to the economic future of Phoenix than to make ASU a premier player in the rough-and-tumble world of science- and technology-driven research funded primarily by the federal government.

Failure to expand ASU's research efforts greatly restricts the amount of money the university can generate for all of its activities, especially when the Legislature is steadily decreasing cash flow to universities while allowing tuition to creep higher. Up to 40 percent of federal research grants can be spent on general university expenses.

"The way government partners with universities for funding of research is what funds universities," Crow says. "We've been walking away from that."

The competition for more than $33 billion in university research grants each year is a high-stakes, cutthroat game that can have a profound impact on the development of regional economies.

"The competition is intense because this is the game," Crow says. "And the thing here is people don't even understand the game, much less realize we are out of it."

Crow says he's been somewhat taken aback by the response of some conservative legislators who don't seem to understand that the Arizona Legislature is competing with the governments of states and countries throughout the world when it makes decisions on investments in research facilities on Arizona's campuses.

"A good percentage of the Legislature says . . . What are they talking about?'" Crow says. "That's literally it."

The federal research pool for universities is expected to increase sharply because of President Bush's request for the largest research and development budget in the nation's history -- $122.5 billion for fiscal 2004.

Some would say Crow has embarked on an impossible mission, a criticism he readily acknowledges -- with a caveat.

"You could say this is a futile attempt," Crow says. "But you couldn't say it's a meaningless attempt."


The first step in Crow's mission is to transform ASU into a serious competitor for research dollars with blue-blood schools such as Johns Hopkins University.

While the venerable Baltimore institution rarely shows up on the sports television shows (lacrosse aside) where ASU receives most of its media attention, the Johns Hopkins brain trust generated nearly $1 billion in research spending in 2001 to rank No. 1 in the nation in a poll that dwarfs the importance of college football's Top 25.

Each dollar of externally funded research translates into a five-fold or more -- sometimes far more -- impact on regional economies. The $1 billion of external research funding at Johns Hopkins brings at least a $5 billion regional economic impact to the Baltimore area.

Other top research institutions include second-ranked University of California at Los Angeles ($693 million), followed by the University of Wisconsin ($604 million), the University of Michigan ($600 million) and the University of Washington ($589 million).

Unlike the Sun Devil men's basketball team which was invited to the NCAA tournament of 65 teams, ASU wouldn't have secured a slot in the Big Dance of Research Institutions.

ASU was 89th in 2001 at an anemic $119 million in R&D spending, of which $57 million came from the federal government and $48 million from foundation grants.

Powered by its world-class medical center, agriculture college and optics department, the University of Arizona ranked 23rd, generating three times as much R&D money as ASU at $367 million, with $200 million coming from the federal government.

To jump-start ASU's drive to become a major research university, Crow launched an aggressive campaign, first with the Board of Regents and later with the Legislature, to build research facilities at ASU.

He set off on a radical path.

At last September's regents meeting, he stunned regents and his counterparts at UofA and NAU by abandoning the traditional way universities seek money from the Legislature.

Rather than submitting a request for enrollment funds along with a slew of "supplement appropriations" ranging from construction projects to salary increases, Crow said ASU wanted only two things: money for enrollment and $185 million for the research buildings.

"If you give us those two things, we will take care of everything else, salary increases included," Crow said.

UofA president Pete Likins took immediate notice, instantly realizing that Crow was moving in the right direction by focusing on the importance of expanding research facilities while at the same time reducing the number of individual supplemental requests that a legislature facing a $1 billion deficit would be reluctant to approve.

"It was a brilliant insight," Likins says of Crow's proposal.

So brilliant that Likins tore up the UofA budget proposal on the spot and joined Crow in focusing entirely on the research buildings.

"Not everybody was pleased," Likins says. Some regents were not prepared for a sudden remake of the massive university budgets.

Crow unleashed a full-court press on the Legislature to convince lawmakers that the research buildings would yield substantial, ongoing financial returns and should not be viewed as a painful expense.

He quickly drummed up support from more than 300 business leaders, who sent letters to lawmakers urging passage of the bill.

He also engaged in a somewhat manipulative media campaign that involved Crow's enlistment of Intel chairman Craig Barrett to prepare a letter of support. Crow personally reviewed drafts of Barrett's letter and gave his approval for the letter on March 20. Barrett later circulated the letter under his signature to Valley media.

Crow also hired Republican gubernatorial candidate and former U.S. Representative Matt Salmon at $8,000 a month to lobby Republican legislators. Democratic Governor Janet Napolitano already has expressed support for the plan.

The legislation, introduced as a strike-all bill late in the session, passed the House 41-17 in early May. But the bill is now stalled in the Senate, where it has yet to be introduced. Senate Republican leaders are holding up the bill, seeking to force some reluctant lawmakers to first pass a bare-bones budget before addressing the research bill.

Salmon says he believes Senate President Ken Bennett will move the bill to the floor for a vote after the budget is passed, but that may not be for several weeks.

"If it gets to the floor, I think it will pass," Salmon says.

If the bill dies, ASU could elect to sell bonds backed by its own resources, but such a move would likely run into resistance from bond rating agencies, which are already troubled by ASU's relatively high outstanding debt.

The research legislation is crucial to Crow's blueprint to advance ASU into the big leagues of academia.

If the Legislature approves the research funding bill, Crow says ASU will use its $185 million share to build five research facilities, focusing heavily on integration of biological sciences and technology. Those facilities include:

• $60 million for Phase II of the Arizona Biodesign Institute. (The first phase of the institute is already under construction.)

• $53 million for construction of newly created School of Life Sciences.

• $35 million for construction of an Information Science and Engineering Center.

• $13 million for construction of a Nanotechnology and High Tech Materials building.

• $14 million for ASU West for construction of a research center.

Crow's drive to increase external research funding at ASU might have unintended consequences.

Regents president Jack Jewett is very concerned that the Legislature will further slash the universities' operating budgets in exchange for agreeing to spend money on the research facilities.

"That's always a risk," he says.

The Legislature has already cut the universities' budgets by $110 million over the last two years and is seeking another $40 million cut this year.

Another worry is that the Legislature will take advantage of the $1,000 tuition increase approved last winter by the regents, and reduce the universities' appropriation by an equal amount to help balance the budget.

Such a move would further aggravate an already dire situation, Jewett says. The universities already are having a hard time keeping professors because of low salaries, and many existing buildings are in need of repair.

On a longer-term basis, regent Chris Herstam says Crow's drive to increase external funding may provide the Legislature with the excuse to further abandon its responsibility to fund the universities -- despite a constitutional provision that requires university education in Arizona to be nearly as free as possible.

"While I agree with Dr. Crow's research strategy, I, at the same time, do not wish to throw in the towel on relying on the state general fund," Herstam says.

Crow's focus on biosciences and engineering has also irritated a number of low-salaried professors who have struggled for years in disciplines that Crow appears to have little interest in, such as the social sciences and fine arts, where research grants are far less plentiful than in the hard sciences.

"I would say the morale is as low as it has been in the 30 years I have been here," says political science professor Sheldon Simon.

Skeptics note that while ASU may not be in the top 75 universities pulling in federal research grants, ASU has already achieved significant recognition as a major research institution. Since 1994, ASU has been one of about 60 public universities classified as Research Institutions by the Carnegie Foundation for Advancement of Teaching.

Critics also say Arizona's universities appear to be betting too heavily that they will be able to capitalize on the growing biotech industry. Although the industry has fallen on very hard times the last year, it is still the latest darling of economic development officials across the country.

"Everybody has turned like lemmings to biotechnology as the next big thing," says Joseph Cortright, a Portland State University economist who co-authored a 2002 Brookings Institution report on biotechnology.

Nearly 40 states and most major metropolitan areas have now embraced biotechnology as the way to stimulate ailing economies. Cortright predicts that most of these efforts will fail to achieve the hoped-for results.

Cortright says that nine regions now dominate the biotech industry and it is very unlikely that an upstart like Arizona will be able to make significant inroads unless the state is willing to invest at least $300 million a year for the next decade.

Even then, there is no guarantee that a major biotechnology economy will develop.

It is extremely unlikely that Arizona can afford to commit to such a long-term investment.

"In the wonderful world of economic development, $300 million is a lot of money," Cortright says. "In the world of biotechnology, it really isn't that much."

Crow is quite aware of the pitfalls of diving headlong into biotechnology without a well-thought-out plan.

"If you wanted to pound me and say, You're a Johnny-come-lately coming into the game, everybody is doing biotech. How are you going to beat these guys?' I would say, You know what? You're right.' But that's not the angle we are taking.

"The angle we are taking is biodesign."

Led by the AZ Biodesign Institute, Crow says ASU will undertake work unlike any other university in the country -- or, for that matter, in the world.


The AZ Biodesign Institute is being directed by world-renowned pharmaceutical scientist George Poste, who brings immediate clout to ASU's research efforts.

As the former president of research and development for the drug manufacturer SmithKline Beecham, Poste was associated with 29 drug and vaccine registrations in the U.S. and internationally. A naturalized U.S. citizen, Poste was awarded the rank of Commander of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth in 1999 for his work in biotechnology.

Poste retired from SmithKline in 1999 and settled in Scottsdale where he served as chief executive officer of Health Technology Networks, a consulting group specializing in the impact of genetics, computing and other advanced technologies on health care.

Poste was part of Arizona's successful effort last year to attract the International Genomics Consortium to downtown Phoenix. Crow began discussions with Poste soon after becoming ASU president.

"This guy is an unbelievable genius," Crow says of Poste.

And, indeed, Poste's ASU appointment has triggered a resounding round of accolades.

"He will initiate a creative and ambitious strategy that will set the AZ Biodesign Institute on a trajectory for international prominence," says Stephen Benkovic, a prominent chemistry professor at Pennsylvania State University.

"There are only a few people in the world who have the background in bioscience and genomic research that George has, and who have taken vaccines and pharmaceuticals into the marketplace," says Jeffrey Trent, founder of Translational Genomics Research Institute in Phoenix. "He will help ASU and Arizona take a major leap forward."

The Biodesign Institute's mission is broad and bold: "Our intention is to build the science and engineering capacity to design new machines, plants, systems, material and molecules to enhance the general quality of life," Crow states.

The institute initially will be funded by tapping $30 million over the next five years from Proposition 301 money, a voter-approved initiative that earmarks a percentage of the state sales tax to university programs. Federal grants and corporate sponsorships are expected to bring another $70 million into the institute during the first few years.

Like Crow, Poste is also connected to the highest levels of the country's national security structure.

Poste is a member of the U.S. Defense Science Board and is chairman of the Pentagon's task force on bioterrorism. He's considered one of the top experts in the world on biothreats and the spread of infectious diseases.

Poste, who will be paid $300,000 annually, is expected to immediately attract a cadre of premier researchers to AZ Biodesign Institute, along with their federal grants.

The fledgling institute will be housed in a new $69 million, 170,000-square-foot research laboratory under construction on the east side of ASU's Tempe campus.

Like Crow, Poste also has Grand Canyon-size ideas and goals. He's urged creation of a new life-sciences defense industry to counter what he believes is an increasingly growing threat from bioterrorists. ASU's Biodesign Institute appears poised to be on the leading edge as this industry emerges.

In interviews with trade journals, Poste paints a stark picture of the dangers inherent in biotechnology and the need to immediately bolster security in America's research laboratories.

Basic biomedical research under way in top private and public laboratories could prove useful for insidious weapons development, Poste told New York writer Laurie Garrett in a December 2000 interview.

For example, Poste told Garrett that "gene therapy's goal is creation of stealth viral vectors that can introduce a gene, bypassing immune system recognition. What a perfect biological weapon!"

The bottom line, Poste said in the interview, is the so-called "dual use dilemma": Every breakthrough in biomedical research also has the potential of destroying significant segments of humanity.

Crow says ASU is preparing to handle the moral, ethical and security issues that come with ASU's entry into the world of biodesign.

"We have to be very careful of unintended consequences," he says.


Crow's curriculum vitae runs 12 pages and includes detailed references to 56 professional presentations, 34 articles in various journals and three books. It notes that Crow graduated from Iowa State University in 1977 with a degree in political science and environmental studies.

It states that Crow obtained his doctorate in public administration from the Maxwell School at Syracuse University in 1985. It provides summaries of all his teaching, research and administrative positions held at Iowa State, University of Kentucky and for the 11 years at Columbia University that preceded his appointment as president of ASU.

It also notes his membership on various boards, including a one-line reference as vice chair and director of In-Q-Tel Inc.

Nowhere does it mention that In-Q-Tel is the creation of the Central Intelligence Agency, which remains In-Q-Tel's sole client.

Nor does it state that In-Q-Tel receives $35 million a year from the CIA to serve as the agency's "technology accelerator." In-Q-Tel's primary mission is to seek out and deliver to the agency innovative information technology solutions available in the marketplace.

Crow is a founding member of In-Q-Tel and has served on its board of trustees since 1999.

"Michael Crow was instrumental from the beginning in coming up with the concept of what In-Q-Tel would become," says In-Q-Tel spokeswoman Gayle Von Eckartsberg.

The nonprofit organization was created during the last years of the Clinton administration after it became apparent the CIA was struggling to manage the rapidly increasing torrent of information being collected. In-Q-Tel has invested in about 25 companies, several of which have developed products that have been adopted for use by the CIA.

While In-Q-Tel does not engage in classified projects, Crow and other members of the board of directors have received security clearances. Other directors include Norman Augustine, former chairman of Lockheed Martin Corporation, former Secretary of Defense William Perry, who is now a professor at Stanford University, and John N. McMahon, former deputy director of the CIA.

Crow says his role with In-Q-Tel does not involve any secret work, and therefore does not pose an ethical conflict with his role as president of a university where open exchange of information is essential and expected.

"If this was a classified board . . . or a project that for any reason I could not discuss, then I think it would be inappropriate for me to participate," Crow says.

Crow says his work with In-Q-Tel has been a "chance to learn and understand the defense and intelligence side of the government's R&D efforts."

If research at ASU leads to a technology that may be of interest to In-Q-Tel, and hence the CIA, Crow says he would "bow out" to avoid any conflicts of interest. At this point, In-Q-Tel is investing relatively small amounts of venture capital in start-up companies mostly involved with information technology.

Crow says the CIA and other intelligence agencies are in dire need of improving information management.

"These agencies are so antiquated it is beyond belief," he says. "These guys had computers that weren't compatible. No new technology."

Crow says none of the intelligence agencies "have the ability to move quickly. None have the ability to understand what is going on in the market."

In-Q-Tel, Crow notes, is listed on his résumé that was submitted to the selection committee. The enterprise's affiliation with the CIA, however, is not disclosed on his résumé and was never discussed with the selection committee.

"We never talked about it specifically," Crow says.

But Crow's direct affiliation with the CIA was known to the executive search firm of Heidrick & Struggles, which was paid $136,000 by the Board of Regents to screen candidates. The company only provided an oral report to the regents, according to Linda Blessing, the Board of Regents' executive director.

Chuck Knapp, a partner with Heidrick & Struggles, says he discussed In-Q-Tel's operations with Crow.

"I didn't see any red light with respect to the CIA at the time," Knapp says. "In fact, I viewed it as a positive."

Nevertheless, Knapp says he never told members of the search committee -- which included several members of the Board of Regents -- that Crow was on the board of directors of a CIA-funded operation.

"We had a number of general discussions with the search committee and the board [of regents] about Michael's background in Washington," Knapp says. But those discussions were limited to general references to Crow's work with the "intelligence community," Knapp says.

"I don't recall ever saying, as the [In-Q-Tel] Web site clearly does, that this was primarily a CIA-type operation," Knapp says.

Knapp's failure to disclose Crow's CIA connections left the selection committee and members of the Board of Regents without important information that likely would have triggered discussion.

"I would liked to have known [In-Q-Tel] was a CIA-affiliated organization for discussion purposes," says regent Chris Herstam.

Regent Kay McKay says she was never informed about Crow's CIA ties. "Obviously, I would have preferred to know."

Regent Don Ulrich, who was the head of the selection committee, says he was aware that Crow had ties to a "government committee" but didn't know about his links to the CIA.

Ulrich says he, too, would have liked to have known about the CIA connection prior to making the decision to hire Crow.

But all three regents on the selection committee say Crow's CIA connection would have made no difference in their decision to hire him as ASU president.

In fact, when Crow's role with the CIA was disclosed in a Wall Street Journal story last fall, the link generated little reaction at ASU. It has not been a topic of formal discussion at the ASU Faculty Senate.

Still, George Watson, outgoing ASU Faculty Senate president, says Crow's CIA connection should have been discussed prior to his hiring.

"It does seem like you would want to be aware of something like that," Watson says. "Nobody wants their president working for the CIA."

Technically, Crow is not a CIA employee. He is a trustee on the board of directors of a nonprofit organization that was created by the CIA with the approval of Congress.

ASU, meanwhile, is not currently engaged in any "classified" research, says Jonathon Fink, Vice Provost for Research.

But Crow's close ties to the CIA and Poste's chairmanship of the Pentagon's bioterrorism task force certainly raise questions about whether ASU is heading down a path that will lead to the university engaging in classified research.

David Gibbs, associate professor of history and political science at the University of Arizona, has long been a harsh critic of academics working with the CIA.

Gibbs points to the CIA's history of clandestine operations that have resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people and the overthrow of numerous governments. CIA operations to support dictators and revolutionaries, including Saddam Hussein and elements of al-Qaeda during Afghanistan's war with the Soviet Union, have come back to haunt the U.S.

"The CIA has a very bad record, and I don't think they deserve the public trust," Gibbs says. "Academia should not be associated with this agency."

Gibbs' concerns are not shared by the Board of Regents.

ASU's increasingly close ties to the intelligence and defense communities are seen by the regents and others more as an opportunity to cash in on research grants and enhance the university's prestige rather than as a threat to academic freedom.

"In this day and age of international terrorism and threats from international terrorists, I don't think the general public would have any objections for the ASU president to be affiliated with an organization that fights terrorism," says regent Herstam.


Last January's national collegiate football championship game, the Fiesta Bowl played in Sun Devil Stadium, generated an estimated $154 million in economic impact, according to ASU's business college.

The 1996 Super Bowl in Sun Devil Stadium is credited with generating a $350 million windfall for Arizona.

The Arizona Diamondbacks' four home games in the 2001 World Series were estimated to generate about $60 million to the Valley's economy

Arizona's civic leaders have long pointed to the economic benefits that come from spending more than $1 billion in taxpayer dollars on the construction of sports facilities that will occasionally host major competitions.

But these one-time events spread out over many years pale in comparison to the annual economic impact of ASU and its 10,000 employees.

When all economic interdependencies are accounted for, the spending of ASU students, staff and faculty was responsible for more than 37,000 Arizona jobs and $2.1 billion spending in fiscal year 2002, according to the ASU business school.

And Crow envisions ASU's economic impact on the region dramatically increasing. The linchpin, he says, is gaining legislative approval for the sale of more than $400 million in bonds to pay for construction of the research buildings at ASU, UofA and NAU.

The bill pending before the Legislature would require the state to spend $34 million a year beginning in fiscal 2007 and continuing for 23 years to repay the debt financing, bringing the total cost to the state to approximately $782 million.

The idea of piling on more debt at a time the Legislature is struggling to fill a $1 billion deficit is not an easy sell. A cadre of Republican legislators oppose the measure, saying now is not the time to burden future legislators with a debt for projects with speculative outcomes.

Republican State Representative John Huppenthal of Chandler has dismissed ASU's economic projections as sheer speculation. He voted against the bill when it was before the House.

"I thought it was nuts to be tying up $400 million of our credits on this project," he says.

Huppenthal says he is very concerned the state's economy could continue to stagger and that the Legislature should not issue debt for speculative projects when it may need to borrow money in the near future simply to pay teachers and run prisons.

But the bill's sponsor, Republican Representative Bob Robson of Chandler, says the cost of the proposal is small compared to the potential benefits of attracting additional research to ASU.

"You are potentially changing the economic basis of the state," he says.

ASU projects that construction of its $185 million worth of research facilities will immediately generate $330 million in economic impact, plus an additional $15 million in state, county and city taxes.

Once construction is complete, ASU projects the facilities will conservatively attract another $50 million a year in external funding from federal, industry and private foundations. These external funds will be spent locally, triggering a chain reaction in spending worth an additional $250 million a year in regional economic impact.

Finally, ASU can expect its research to attract a host of new companies to the Valley. Although ASU rates relatively low on the amount of external research grants it receives, the university's research has been very successful in generating start-up companies. ASU already is rated in the top 10 universities in spinning off new start-up companies based on total university research expenditures.

ASU estimates that another $25 million a year will be generated by spin-off companies capitalizing on research.

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, 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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