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University conference looks at reviving state economy

Stony Brook University students protest proposed education budget

Stony Brook University students protest proposed education budget cuts. The demonstration Wednesday was timed for a visit from SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher who was attending a conference on how the state can attract more research and research money. (March 3, 2010) Credit: Kevin P. Coughlin

The state's public universities and community colleges can help revive New York's economy through high-tech and medical research, industry partnerships and incubators for small companies, academic and business leaders said Wednesday at a Stony Brook University conference.

At the same time, several scholars warned that New York is losing its competitive edge to North Carolina, Washington and other states that have aggressively pursued the billions of dollars the federal government spends every year on research.

SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher, one of the attendees, said Stony Brook is particularly well positioned to benefit from science, medicine and energy grants because of its relationships with Brookhaven and Cold Spring Harbor laboratories. Zimpher added that on recent visits she's been encouraged to hear about cooperation among Stony Brook and Long Island's four other public campuses - SUNY Old Westbury, Farmingdale State College and the community colleges in Nassau and Suffolk.

"It's a wonderful coincidence that on Long Island we have the full spectrum of SUNY, including community colleges, a technical college, a research university, a medical school and dentistry program," she said in an interview as the conference ended. "The challenge is how to take the firepower of all these diverse institutions and put it in service to the economy."

The conference was part of a series of statewide planning sessions that are intended to devise a five-year plan to raise SUNY's profile while turning the 64 campuses into economic engines that drive the economy.

Participants, including professors and business executives, were told to come up with what organizers called BHAG - "big, hairy audacious goals." Some of those included rewarding professors for obtaining patents rather than publishing articles in scholarly journals, and encouraging "virtual research projects" that link scientists at public and private campuses across the state and thousands of miles away.

"We've got great potential that we haven't tapped," said David Lavallee, SUNY's interim provost.

Cary Staller, a SUNY trustee from Long Island, said many of the innovations will not require new spending. He suggested, for example, that the public universities should put more emphasis on developing ventures that can make a profit. "Accept that research universities need to change," he urged the academics, "and embrace change."

The five-hour session was filled with reminders of SUNY's potential as well as the daunting problems facing the system. It was held in Stony Brook's new Center for Excellence in Wireless and Information Technology, the first building in a research park next to the main campus.

But in a symbol of the university's woes, two busloads of student protested tens of millions of dollars in planned state cuts to the Stony Brook budget as well as proposed tuition increases.

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