insights (2006-46)

From Cows to Labs on UT Farm

What used to be known as UT’s Cherokee Farm, or just the dairy farm, is now looming large in the university’s research-driven high tech future plans.

The cows will soon be gone from the 250-acre tract—bordered by Alcoa Highway and Fort Loudon Lake—and it’s been re-christened as the Cherokee Campus. A $32 million appropriation for infrastructure, including roads and utilities, tops UT’s list of capital funding requests that will be presented to Gov. Phil Bredesen later this month.

While plans for what gets built on the new campus are still in a formative stage, it’s clearly going to be “research intensive,” UT’s Executive Vice President Jack Britt told trustees at the November meeting. That’s a switch from an earlier emphasis on use of the space for student recreational activities and housing.

In a presentation to trustees, Britt elevated “the critical need to expand research space” to a short list of the university’s top priorities. At first blush, that seems surprising since UT already has several new facilities in the works dedicated to its heralded research partnership with Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). These include three joint institutes for computational science, neutron science and biology (known as JICs, JINs and JIBs) located on ORNL’s campus, and a fourth one for advanced materials (JIAMs) that’s due to be built on the Knoxville campus.

UT got $20 million in federal funding and a $20 million commitment from the state for a 100,000 square-foot JIAMs facility last year, but a site for it has yet to be selected. One gets a sense that the Cherokee Campus is preferred, but only if it can be built there in conjunction with as yet unspecified and unbudgeted new facilities to house related academic disciplines. “We wouldn’t want to build JIAMs by itself because there are other faculty and equipment that those folks need to use. So you need to move a combination of groups in conjunction,” Britt says.

Those folks start with some of the 15 or so highly regarded scientists that UT is attempting to recruit to fill what have been enshrined as Governor’s Chairs with $10 million in annual state funds and a matching amount from ORNL for joint institute endeavors. After two years of searching, only one of these positions has been filled (by a computational molecular biophysicist, Jeremy Smith, who made his move here last month from Heidelberg University in Germany).

UT’s vice president for research David Millhon reports that four other searches are at “an intermediate stage” but acknowledges that recruitment is taking longer than foreseen because “when you’re trying to get really top people, other institutions are trying very hard to keep them.” Each of the Governor’s Chair holders is expected to lead a team of junior faculty members, graduate students and other research assistants in their respective fields.

Britt estimates their space needs at about 5,000 square feet apiece. And he discounts the value of the three joint institute buildings at ORNL in contributing to that need. While researchers may be domiciled there when making use of ORNL’s unique capabilities such as the Spallation Neutron Source, Britt believes they should be based in Knoxville where they can be integrated into UT’s instructional scheme of things.

Beyond finding space for the Governor’s Chair, Britt also stresses that many other UT scientists and engineers are conducting research in facilities that are antiquated. “When you look at buildings built 30 or 40 years ago, most of the environmental standards were different than they are today,” he says. A migration of some activities to the Cherokee Campus could, in turn, permit renovation of older buildings to bring them up to snuff in terms of things like cooling rooms and ventilation. In all, he believes 150,000 square feet of additional state-of-the-art space is needed over and above what the JIAMs building will provide.

The Cherokee Campus, as Britt envisions it, could be much more than just a cluster of university facilities. It would also address UT’s mission of effecting technology transfer and fostering economic development by interspersing quarters for new high-tech enterprises that could draw upon UT expertise and lab equipment in their own R & D activities. He also reports that, “We’ve had a number of federal and state agencies who have said they would like to be located there.”

A model for the Cherokee Campus could well be the new Centennial Campus that North Carolina State University is developing in proximity to its main campus in Raleigh. According to its website, “Centennial is home to over 100 large and small companies, government agencies and NC State research and academic units.”

Britt recently led a delegation of eight UT officials to Raleigh who both liked what they saw and got a lot of encouragement. “They have been through many of the processes associated with developing such a campus, and they are very willing to provide advice and suggestions,” he reports.

Britt foresees a materials science focus for the new UT campus because “we’re probably strongest in that area, and if you build around that strength you would attract companies in the nano area that would want to be located where there’s cutting edge work going on.”

Since not even the $32 million for infrastructure has been secured yet, it’s premature to start counting any other chickens where state funding is concerned. And UT has numerous other capital and operating requests that will be competing with a host of other claimants for Bredesen’s budgetary backing. But the need to get on with the JIAMs building is urgent, and the case for making it the centerpiece of a research park like Centennial is compelling.