Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2007

‘Face book’ to link business and science

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Facing another year of reduced federal research dollars, the region’s science leaders say the answer is more face time with business.

One emerging idea to boost cooperation between science and business is an online ‘‘science face book,” say two Johns Hopkins University executives.

Elaine Amir and David McDonough say they have enlisted support for the project from state and Montgomery County officials, the University System of Maryland, Johns Hopkins and the business community.

The project, which Amir said could be announced in two months, will be a database with the names and projects of so-called ‘‘applied” scientists, or those working on potentially commercial ideas. The database would also list and locate available resources for high-end equipment, such as electron microscopes, gene sequencers and quarantine containment facilities for hire by companies with limited budgets. Targeted commercial interests of venture and angel capitalists would also be in the database, said McDonough, who is senior director for development oversight for Johns Hopkins real estate.

Amir, executive director of Johns Hopkins’ campus in Rockville, said the project is a reaction to a change in the mentality of the region’s scientific community.

As federal funding for grants from the National Institutes of Health and other federal agencies are reduced, ‘‘we are a lot more isolated [than other leading science regions] because we are a government region,” Amir said. ‘‘We don’t think business ... It is a general impression.”

There is a lot of energy, just under the surface, in the region’s scientific community to look at commercialization of research and to take a greater interest in the private sector, she said. ‘‘And we are not used to doing that.”

She and McDonough recognized that many basic discovery scientists do not want to work with business.

‘‘We are asking for only the coalition of the willing, the early adopters,” Amir said.

The science face book is one of many ideas that emerged from Vision 2030, a meeting in December of about 100 business, political and education leaders that was coordinated by the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce and involved others, including Montgomery College and the Montgomery County Department of Economic Development. Among the project’s supporters is the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development, spokeswoman Karen Glenn said.

The science face book and other science-to-business projects may not have been feasible 10 years ago, Amir said. But there has been considerable recent success in the field of collaborative management, including the Human Genome Project. A revolution in molecular medicine is under way because the project was accomplished through a collaborative effort of biologists and engineers on a scale unheard of years ago, she said.

William G. Robertson, president and CEO of Adventist Healthcare Inc. in Rockville, is helping drum up support in the business community through his work at the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce.

‘‘We are looking for businesses that see knowledge industries as the driver of the economy of the future,” he said.

Robertson called the science face book part of a larger effort as the world economy moves toward combined knowledge industries, such as nanobiology, bioscience, bioengineering and aeronautics materials science. ‘‘It’s about, ‘How do we take that base of resources to make an economic engine out of it?’”

Federal funding of science research, adjusted for inflation, has declined since 2004. Although still not addressing flat or declining funding for medical research, the Senate has proposed a 2.3 percent increase for 2008 to $144 billion for all science research, with the biggest gains in the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, according to an analysis by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Much of the National Science Foundation money would be targeted to education.

In a House version, the NIH, which was targeted for a budget cut in the president’s budget proposal, would see a billion-dollar boost, reversing a flat budget trend since 2005.

‘‘Overall, it looks to be a long autumn, as there are major differences between the House and Senate bills, and both face a very real risk of veto by President Bush,” the American Association for the Advancement of Science said in a statement.

This report originally appeared in The Business Gazette.