Virginia's Center for Innovative Technology, originally sound in concept, is now an idea out of control.
In 1982, some professors at the University of Virginia concluded that Virginia's legislature was not funding basic scientific research as it traditionally funded agricultural and medical research. It would be a good idea, they determined, for the state to appropriate funds for scientific research and in doing so get matching research money from industry and business. They also thought it would be a good idea to have a director and a secretary lodged in one of our major universities to administer the program and funnel money to Virginia's research institutions -- namely, Virginia Polytechnic Institute, Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Virginia -- for that scientific research.
But what went wrong is that a gubernatorial task force on science and technology decided it was symbolically important to "do something" in Northern Virginia, the site of so much of Virginia's high-tech community. So the CIT was created by the General Assembly in 1984, and $50 million has been appropriated for it. This is a big item in Virginia's budget and would be enough money to pay the salaries for 25 Nobel laureates to teach in each of Virginia's engineering schools for four years.
Current plans are to construct a $30 million, nine-story building of black and white marble and gold glass near Dulles Airport. (The height was decided to ensure that the structure could be seen from Dulles Airport -- and even that will require some tree removal.) The symbolism of the center has triumphed at the expense of substance.
And that is the problem. What, in fact, is the CIT supposed to do? No one really knows.
No outside consultant was engaged to formulate the mission or purpose of the CIT. No methodology was established to determine how it should perform. And no method to monitor whether jobs are created, matching funds obtained or research advanced -- in short, whether the money is being well spent and success achieved -- has ever been developed.
Even while its mission has been confused, there have been other, more mundane, troublesome problems in launching the CIT. For example, the site for the building has turned out to be difficult. Its location in two counties has presented many problems, including zoning and transportation. Thousands of dollars were spent on attorneys' fees, but none to study the suitability of the site.
Worse, because the CIT is exempt from the Freedom of Information Act, the $50 million appropriated is entirely shielded from public scrutiny, creating an aura of unaccountability. While there may be reasons to protect certain research projects from public examination, there is no reason to shield the salary levels of some 19 employees.
Fifty million dollars later and after all the other steps have been taken, a senior member of the state Senate Finance Committee, Dudley Emick, responded to reporters' questions by saying that "the CIT's purpose was always hazy. The idea among CIT backers was: 'We got to have a flagship; don't worry about the mission.'
Now the CIT is in the awkward position of being a broker between the business community and the university community. But if there's going to be an ongoing relationship between universities and industry, what is the point of having a third-party bureaucratic structure in the middle? Why not have a direct dialogue between the business community and individual universities?
The best step for the new governor is to set up a manageable blue-ribbon committee serving without salary to assess the CIT. There are surely better, and indeed less expensive, ways to help Virginia secure its place among the high-tech centers in the United States. In fact, the CIT seems to be a prime candidate for death with dignity.
At the very least, the state should not proceed to build a high-tech Taj Mahal in Fairfax County when there is so much confusion about the mission of the CIT. Virginia should not throw good money after bad. The building should not be built.