UT-ORNL Synergy Keeps Growing

Plans for an education/research center may boost output of Ph.Ds

The University of Tennessee and Oak Ridge National Laboratory are getting ever closer to being joined at the hip.

Recently announced plans for attaching up to 200 ORNL scientists to the UT faculty and enrolling up to 400 additional UT graduate students who would support their research are "transformational" in the view of UT Chancellor Jimmy Cheek.

Especially coming at a time when UT's faculty ranks are otherwise largely frozen by budgetary constraints, the ability to draw upon these ORNL scientists will increase UT's instructional capacity at no additional cost to the university. The federal Department of Energy, which funds the national lab, has blessed their spending a certain amount of time in an academic role on what amounts to a pro bono basis.

In return, the UT graduate students who will be mentored by ORNL scientists are expected to bring valuable assistance to their research work with an emphasis on energy related projects. Despite his budgetary woes, Gov. Phil Bredesen had managed to dedicate $6.2 million in "seed" money to cover the $50,000 per student cost of stipends and tuition for their first year. After that, these costs are expected be funded by grants for the research projects in which they are engaged.

The quid pro quo, as Cheek views it, is "for UT-Knoxville, a significant increase in our output of very talented Ph.Ds, which is one of our goals; and for ORNL, a labor supply helping to provide more research." Bredesen has also stressed economic development benefits to the state, particularly in terms of furthering its footholds in the solar and bio energy fields.

The undertaking will be domiciled in a new center to be known as the University of Tennessee-Oak Ridge National Laboratory Graduate Education and Research Center. It will have its own director, make faculty appointments, and confer degrees. The emphasis will be on a new interdisciplinary Ph.D program in energy science and engineering. But "exactly what that looks like, we don't know yet," Cheek says.

Getting up to the full complement of 200 ORNL-based faculty members and 400 graduate students that is envisioned may take five to 10 years, he says. It's not clear to what extent the grants and contracts funding their research will count toward augmenting UT's research harvest and ranking—another university goal. DOE-funded work on the part of ORNL scientists wouldn't count, but reimbursements of their graduate-student stipends might well. And there could well be research funding generated through the center from other federal agencies, such as the National Science Foundation, that would probably be credited to UT.

In any event, other collaborations with ORNL are coming to fruition that promise to pay big dividends. Foremost among them are four joint institutes that have been on the drawing boards for nearly a decade, and joint appointments of distinguished faculty positions known as Governor's Chairs to spearhead their research.

The state committed close to $30 million for buildings to house three of the institutions in Oak Ridge, but only one of them, the Joint Institute for Computational Sciences, has been in place for any length of time. A second, the Joint Institute for Biological Sciences, was completed last year, and the third, the Joint Institute for Neutron Sciences, is due to be ready for occupancy this coming spring. Federal funding for a fourth, the Joint Institute for Advanced Materials, was secured in 2006 to be located on UT's heralded new Cherokee Farm Campus off Alcoa Highway. But master planning and infrastructure work on this former site of the university's dairy farm has delayed ground-breaking for the new facility, and its completion date remains uncertain.

While JICS now houses UT's vaunted supercomputer (known as Kraken) and is humming with research activity, efforts to recruit scientific superstars to fill Governor Chair positions were largely unavailing for several years. Within the past year, however, five have come on board in fields ranging from fuel cell power storage and "smart grid" power transmission to microbiology, polymers, and nuclear security.

Gov. Bredesen has remained committed to providing $6 million a year to uphold UT's end of a bargain under which it covers half of the lofty costs associated with the positions, with ORNL shouldering the other half.

When asked how much additional research funding the Governor's Chairs could be expected to bring in, Cheek initially ventures "maybe on the order of $20 million." But he then adds, "that could be too conservative. One of them is touting ideas that could run over $100 million."

The foundation for all the above, and more, was laid in 2000 when UT in partnership with the Battelle Institute was selected to manage ORNL. DOE recently rewarded UT-Battelle's performance with an extension of that management contract.

Now, Cheek believes that the tandem can aspire to the kind of research eminence that the University of California at Berkeley has achieved in conjunction with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, which it manages. One of the biggest gaps that needs to be overcome is a shortfall in the number of graduate students to contribute to the research effort. "We attract some very talented graduate students here, but not nearly as many as we should with a major national laboratory 22 miles from us," Cheek says.

And as Gov. Bredesen and local economic boosters stress, a growing population of Ph.Ds represents a talent pool that can make a major contribution to the area's economic growth.