Why focus on research?

Published 8:07 am Thursday, April 7, 2016

The question some have asked of me is this: “Why did you push for research in the General Assembly this session?” Clearly, they understand why I spent so much time and energy transforming our community colleges in such a fashion that they will be a model for other states for workforce training. They understand that we need skilled workers. They question, however, why a rural legislator with no research universities in our region would champion a new model for research.

The first reason is simple — we are a commonwealth; therefore, what is good for one part of Virginia is good for all of Virginia.

The second reason is logistics. I serve on the Senate finance subcommittees for Higher Education and for Commerce and Economic Development. Each of these has or should have a role in the budgeting on research dollars.

In this role, I joined the governor on a trip to Georgia to learn how they have better invested research budgets to fund projects that have produced a number of well paying jobs and many new tax paying companies. What we learned in Georgia was that, rather than having each research university coming independently to the legislature for funding projects, their process was far more productive and more effective by encouraging them to work together. To accomplish that, they created a business panel that reviews proposals and funds only the best. Best being defined as those that are most likely to attract private investment and have a good chance of commercialization. Commercialization meaning that the research would be spun off from the university and become private companies that employ citizens at a good wage and pay taxes.

Over a period of time, the research universities learned that they were more successful by working together rather than working in silos that restrict everything secret within the school. They developed an Eminent Scholars program which focuses on, not only recruiting research talent, but rather selecting the right talent that wants to see their projects become profitable businesses.

During the Virginia General Assembly session, the state’s research universities learned of the opportunities available. Their leadership quickly understood the value in working together. The university presidents will now have the tools needed to attract the right talent to achieve successful commercialization, but only after a panel of outside experts and business leaders are confident that there is a true match for Virginia. However, it will be a challenge to move the mindset of current researchers who have personally done quite well in their current comfort zones.

The third reason for my support came about because of a statewide bioscience conference that was held last fall at the Institute for Research and Advanced Learning in Danville. Some believe our region has no role in research, however, currently there is research occurring. At the institute, there are many projects involved in bioscience.

Frank Ruff, a Republican, represents Lunenburg County in the Virginia Senate. His email address is Sen.Ruff@verizon.net.