Correction to This Article
A Feb. 10 Business column misidentified the organization that has classified George Mason University as a research university. It is the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, not Carnegie Mellon University.

GMU's Nurturing Potential

By Steven Pearlstein
Friday, February 10, 2006

In the long run, Northern Virginia's biggest economic challenge isn't overcoming traffic congestion and curbing runaway development. It's building a world-class research university that can nourish and catalyze an entrepreneurial technology sector.

But which school could that be?

Up to now, the leading contender has been the University of Maryland, which, for all its academic strengths, remains surprisingly disconnected from the commercial center of gravity of the tech community across the river, and the state boundary, in Northern Virginia.

In Virginia, where state schools dominate, the logical contender is Virginia Tech, located four hours away in rural Blacksburg, where it has created little in the way of economic spinoff and -- to be perfectly frank about it -- never will.

And then there is George Mason University, whose spectacular growth since it went independent in 1972 has focused on giving a solid education to local residents and providing skilled employees for local companies. But some recent developments offer some hope that, in its next three decades, GMU may have the potential to do for this area what the University of Texas has done for Austin.

Last year, for example, GMU made it into Carnegie Mellon's list of research universities. With about $65 million in funded research, GMU has a long way to catch up to MIT, with its $800 million research budget, or even Virginia Tech, with $275 million. But there's enough cutting-edge work being done in selected areas that it's made it to the minor leagues.

What did make the headlines was the $10 million gift to GMU's School of Information Technology and Engineering from Ernst Volgenau, the founder of SRA International Inc., a government tech contractor. The money is to be used to attract top researchers and faculty members. More importantly, it represents a challenge to some of Northern Virginia's other tech moguls, who as a group have been missing in action when it comes to major investments in higher education.

Also last year, the National Institutes of Health awarded George Mason $25 million toward the construction of a bio-containment facility at its Prince William campus, which should pave the way for lots of future grants for bioscience research.

And, in a big win for President Alan Merten, GMU beat out the University of California system in recruiting two government researchers -- Lance Liotta of the National Cancer Institute and Emanuel "Chip" Petricoin of the Food and Drug Administration -- who are leaders in the hot new field of proteomics, the study of proteins in the cell that offers promising techniques for diagnosing and curing cancer and other diseases.

Going forward, Merten says he sees possibilities in doing more collaborative research in the biomedical field with George Mason's Fairfax neighbor, Inova Health System. Inova has long harbored ambitions to move from its strong base of clinical care into more teaching and research. It is no coincidence that Merten serves on the Inova board, while Inova chief executive Knox Singleton serves on his.

George Mason's success has not been lost on Virginia's political leaders, who have in the past treated it as a stepchild to the state's more established and prestigious universities in doling out limited state funding. But on his way out of Richmond, Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) left behind a budget that not only includes $25 million toward construction of a new building to house the newly renamed Volgenau School, but also includes a down payment of $255 million on a $1 billion state commitment toward advanced academic research, a good chunk of which is earmarked for bioscience, neuroscience and cancer biology research at GMU.

Still, there's a long way to go. It would take a $2 billion investment by the state and private sources, and another $300 million a year in operating funds for faculty salaries, graduate student support and research funding, to really put George Mason into the second tier of research universities. And even then, it could find itself bumping up against Virginia Tech, which already has a small campus in Falls Church and has actively tried to expand its research presence in Northern Virginia through collaboration with the federal government and private industry.

I started out on this inquiry thinking that this kind of competition between state schools for recognition and funding is not only silly but self-defeating, preventing either school from achieving world-class status or having a major impact on the local economy.

But I've come to another view. While Northern Virginia needs a critical mass of cutting-edge research and researchers, it matters little whether it is concentrated at one school or spread out among three or four. After all, notes Virginia Tech Provost Mark McNamee, what characterizes Boston or the San Francisco Bay area is not the dominance of any one university but the presence of several competing schools, each with its own specialties.

Volgenau, who got his engineering degree in Los Angeles, tends to agree with McNamee. "To say that this region can't afford several first-class engineering and science schools -- well, that's crazy."

Update: When I wrote last week's column about customer service, I had no thought of getting my personal problems solved with Verizon or DirecTV. Our order had been canceled, and we'd already made other arrangements for Starpower (aka RCN) to install cable service for both TV and Internet access. But on Monday afternoon, an embarrassed DirecTV supervisor showed up at the house and installed the TV service.

Steven Pearlstein can be reached

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