Texas is home to NASA, but lags as a science powerhouse

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The eyes of the nation were on Houston on July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong called out from the moon, "Houston, the Eagle has landed."

But while "Houston" may have been the first word spoken on the lunar surface, many Americans no longer equate the Lone Star State with scientific frontiers: today, Massachusetts, New York, and California more likely come to mind when you're thinking of gigabytes and nanotech.

But Texas is taking steps to change that. Last week, under the direction of Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R), more than 200 leading Texas scientists and researchers, including 11 Nobel laureates, gathered for the kick-off of the new Texas Academy of Science, Engineering and Medicine.

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The academy - a concept that's been successful elsewhere - is designed to raise the national profile of Texas research by promoting work being done here.

"This academy is the next step in elevating Texas' profile as a science state," says Senator Hutchison. "By bringing local and national recognition to our members, we hope to attract and retain researchers, increase federal resources coming into Texas, and shine a spotlight on the cutting-edge discoveries made daily."

Such academies bring a variety of benefits, but the underlying motivation is economic. In Texas, for instance, research has a $4.4 billion impact on the economy and for every $1 invested, the state gets a $5 return. In addition, states heavily involved in basic research - funded almost entirely by government - greatly improve their access to applied research, which is funded almost entirely by industry. That means more businesses and better jobs.

"That's why it's important for states to try and figure out a plan for procuring research dollars," says Nathaniel Pitts, director of the office of integrative activities at the National Science Foundation.

Even with a Texan in the White House and another as majority leader in the US House of Representatives, Texas lags in federal funding. Just a few years ago, the state ranked sixth in receipt of federal research and development dollars. Today, it still ranks only fifth. Part of that may be its late start in doing research.

"We are a young state and our research enterprise is much younger than, say, that of Massachusetts, Maryland, or even California," says Michael Brown, a professor of molecular genetics at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas and cochair of the academy. "Before the 1950s, there was very little research done in Texas." From that perspective, says the 1985 Nobel laureate, Texas research is advancing by leaps and bounds.

In fact, Houston's M.D. Anderson Cancer Center was recently awarded a $34 million federal grant to study the disease. The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston was awarded $110 million to build a biocontainment laboratory aimed at finding ways to protect the nation from biological terrorism.

And a consortium of Texas universities has formed the Strategic Partnership of Research in Nanotechnology to produce stronger, lighter, and more efficient materials. Texas is considered a leader in nanotechnology and molecular research.

At the first meeting of the academy, held in San Antonio last week, topics ranged from nanotechnology to the life sciences. Many participants had never met, And between symposiums, "discussions were popping up all over the place" as scientists realized that what one was working on could benefit the other, says Dr. Brown.

That's one of the goals, says Paul C.W. Chu, director of the Texas Center for Superconductivity at the University of Houston and a cofounder of the academy. "By increasing our interaction between colleagues and institutions, we will be creating the critical mass needed to compete for increased federal funding," he says.

In 1987, Dr. Chu helped achieve stable superconductivity at 93K (-180 degrees Celsius); his research now centers on making that commercially viable. Increased funding, he says, would be a boon.

In the end, say established scientists, it's young researchers who get squeezed out of the grant game. Part of the academy's goal is to help them stick with it. "They are the ones with the freshest ideas, the ones with the dreams." says Brown.

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