by James T. Hammond
University of South Carolina President Harris Pastides probably will not beat his chest and utter that word.
But he, former USC President Andrew Sorensen and others who believed in the concept of a research campus in the heart of Columbia deserve considerable credit for having the vision to make it happen.
On Sept. 17, Pastides announced that USC will create a pharmacy innovation center with a $30 million gift from a Florida couple who are also USC alumni. Pastides said the William P. and Lou W. Kennedy Pharmacy Innovation Center will foster collaborative research and education that he said will bring together top minds in entrepreneurship, health sciences, communications and other disciplines with leading pharmacy practice faculty.
And the center’s home will be the Discovery I building that the General Assembly wisely funded in the 2004 S.C. Life Sciences Act, which also provided new facilities for the Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research in Greenville, and at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston.
USC has taken its share of heat for the fact that it has not yet found a successful private sector partner to build additional research buildings on the campus. It also has had bumps in the road with unfortunate choices of private sector partners who either could not perform because of the slumping economy, or who were not completely forthcoming about their previous projects. Indeed, the previous director of Innovista, John Parks, lost his job over such issues.
And USC’s efforts to build a world-class research campus sometimes have been overshadowed by the lightning success of CU-ICAR and ongoing medical research at MUSC.
But to be fair, USC started with fewer trump cards on the table than its fellow research institutions. Clemson started with a $10 million check from BMW, and a more-than-willing private sector partner that could leverage other advantages for the fledgling automotive research campus. MUSC already had a track record of major biomedical research, which helped attract more world-class researchers once the state’s endowed chairs program began funneling money to the three institutions.
Despite the fact that it has not yet attracted a successful bricks-and-mortar partner to the Columbia campus, USC has nevertheless shocked some observers with its ability to recruit research stars. They include Kenneth Reifsnider, director of USC’s Solid Oxide Fuel Cell program, a professor of mechanical engineering, and a member of the prestigious National Academy of Engineering.
Reifsnider previously headed a similar institute at the University of Connecticut and has attracted major research funding from corporations such as United Technologies.
Reifsnider and others who have come to USC because of the Centers of Economic Excellence (endowed chair) grants would not be here if they did not believe USC was serious about becoming a world-class research institution.
At the time Reifsnider left the University of Connecticut to join the USC research team, the New York Times described his move as a shock to the system of traditionally strong Northeastern research institutions by the upstart USC initiatives.
USC likely will eventually satisfy the Life Sciences Act’s stipulation that it attract matching investments in private sector buildings on the campus. But too much focus has been placed upon this element of the research campus development.
USC’s success so far can be measured in the human capital it has assembled, and now with the 30 million reasons provided by the Kennedys for the pharmacy innovation center. Ultimately, USC research campus success will be measured by the academic and research stars of the future who emerge from programs being created in the heart of Columbia.
Sadly, there is a smoldering strain of envy and spite toward the university that insists on labeling Innovista a failed venture. The narrative of this chorus of naysayers is that the university, and by extension South Carolina, is never going to succeed on the world academic and scientific stage, so why should we even try.
Fortunately, we have trustees at our research universities who believe we can and will succeed. Perhaps best know among them is Darla Moore, whose $45 million gift to USC has made her name a household word across the state and the business school that carries her name well-known worldwide. And there are numerous others who have helped advance these vital research programs.
Able leaders such as Sorensen, Pastides, Clemson’s President Jim Barker and MUSC’s President Ray Greenberg have put South Carolina’s best foot forward at a time when too many of our political leaders are cautioning to go slow.
South Carolina has suffered a brain drain of its best and brightest youth for most of its history. Charles Townes, a Greenville native and Furman University graduate, spent his research career at institutions such as California Institute of Technology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and University of California-Berkeley while conducting research that lead to the laser and won him a Nobel Prize.
Fortunately for South Carolina, he has in recent years become involved at Furman, where the Townes Science Center carries his name.
William and Lou Kennedy, Harris Pastides and others have a dream that Nobel Prizes might one day go to people who conduct their research at a South Carolina public university.
It’s time to stop the flood of future South Carolina-born scientists who feel compelled to leave the state to realize their dreams. Those dreams can be realized here if the state whole-heartedly gets behind the vision inherent in the Kennedys’ $30 million gift.
James T. Hammond is Editor of GSA Business. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.