September 5, 2002

C.U. Furthers Historic Science Proposal

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Billed as the single largest scientific push in Cornell history, the $500 million New Life Sciences Initiative (NLSI) will boost spending on research, faculty hiring and construction to keep the University at the forefront of scientific research.

“Far and away, this is the most ambitious undertaking Cornell has ever contemplated,” said Vice Provost for Life Sciences Kraig Adler, who is overseeing the initiative.

By combining the resources of three campuses (Ithaca, Geneva, New York City), seven colleges, fifty academic departments and five hundred faculty, the NLSI attempts to link Cornell’s expertise in genomics with neuroscience, ecology and environmental science.

New life sciences research has produced startling findings, such as a gene-therapy treatment to cure blindness in dogs that took place at the College of Veterinary Medicine.

“We have agriculture and veterinarian colleges that are doing research with dramatic implications for human health,” Adler said. “The National Institute of Health is now funding projects on plants.”

The NLSI’s construction program is ambitious: the cap-stone, the new 240 thousand square foot $110 million life sciences technology building, to be completed in 2006 will be the largest building on campus, while the $62.5 million Duffield Hall, to be completed in 2004, will house nanotechnology, the study of objects at one billionth of a meter.

The life sciences building will not be owned by a particular college but by the entire University — an important distinction to emphasize the intercollegiate program that the building will spur.

Additionally, the NLSI will pay for 100 new faculty hires over the next five to seven years (including 50 in genomics alone) and 100 new graduate fellowships. The new faculty hires will not result in a long term net gain of faculty but will maintain levels around those of 1998.

“To be the best in science is very expensive,” Adler said. “To bring the equipment that an assistant professor in the life sciences requires costs anywhere between $300,000 and $1 million.”

To help raise money for the largest fundraising campaign for a single project in Cornell history, the NLSI is turning to alumni contributions, government support and corporate sponsorship of projects and in-kind donations.

The impetus for the life sciences project emerged from the successful $25 million Cornell Genomics Initiative (CGI).

In 1997, the research futures task force identified genomics as one of several areas of science that Cornell should attempt to excel in.

The faculty senate debated the project and under the leadership of Steve Tanksley, now chair of the CGI, proposed the creation of the CGI.

“Steve Tanksley together with faculty from around the University, decided that Cornell would be passed by in the life sciences unless we did something,” Ader said.

The CGI, now considered “phase one” of the NLSI, hired 25 new faculty and brought new equipment to campus. One of CGI’s innovations was the use of interdepartmental hiring by panels in two or more fields, instead of the more traditional single department hiring panels.

“Much of what has been happening has been moving away from the department,” said Prof. Charles Aquadro, molecular biology and genetics, who has participated in two NSLI searches for new faculty. “One has to operate at a University-wide level to get the colleges and departments together,” Aquadro said.

Due to the success of phase one, Provost Carolyn (Biddy) A. Martin proposed the NLSI, according to Adler.

The NLSI is essential, Adler says, because it guarantees that the next generation of Cornell students, faculty and research will be top-notch.

“Cornell is already number one in the life sciences,” Adler said, pointing to Cornell’s nation-wide leading role in training undergraduates who later go on to get advanced degrees in science and engineering.

Other major research universities also have their own plans accommodating increasingly interdisciplinary research in the sciences. But in the competition to get a piece of the federal research dollars pie, Adler says Cornell will be well-prepared to compete.

In 2001, Cornell received $253 million in federal support while spending $410 million in 2000 on scientific research.

“There is no other University that has a program as broad or comprehensive as ours,” Adler said.

The NLSI will also include fields of social science that deal with life sciences research.

“Policy Analysis and Management faculty are interested in ethical, legal and social implications of genomics,” said Patsy Brannon, the Rebecca Q. and James C. Morgan Dean of the College of Human Ecology.

The law school will also develop a program involving bioethics.

The new life sciences technology building will be built on the lower Alumni Fields, a location that set off a feud last year between athletic and academic needs for the space.

“It took a year to work through that,” Adler said, “but there was essentially only one choice. It was important for many reasons, including for undergraduates, that life sciences be on central campus.”

New fields for athletes will be built, potentially in the Cornell Orchards near Dryden Road.

Richard Meier ’56, Frank H.T. Rhodes Class of ’56 University Professor, will design the new building, his first on Cornell’s campus. Meier’s work includes California’s Getty Center.

“The new building will be a campus-wide facility that benefits the maximum people in the life sciences,” said the design liaison Prof. Steven Kresovich, plant breeding and plant biology. “Hopefully, it’ll be the type of building on campus that will contribute to community.”

At this stage, “we haven’t figured out where the light switches are,” Kresovich said, “but we have conceptually mapped the building out.”

Construction will also include a transgenic mouse facility at the College of Veterinary Medicine to cost between $18 and $20 million will be finished in 2005 and renovations of Baker, Olin and Clark are expected to cost between $50 and $75 million without a completion date yet set.

The program is supervised by Adler on a daily basis but ultimately is the responsibility of the Provost’s office. Two committees oversee the project: the separate internal and the external Life Sciences Advisory Committees include distinguished researchers from Cornell and from elsewhere.

Archived article by Peter Norlander