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Space Committee Blasts State Schools' Research Status

October 2, 2011 - 6:00pm

Florida pays a vital role in the nations space program, but the state sputters when it comes to launching its young people into the aerospace industry.

Florida schools are not among the top 20 universities receiving federal support for science and engineering research and development, according to the National Space Foundation.

Members of the Senate Committee on Military Affairs, Space and Domestic Security say that needs to change quickly if Florida is to remain competitive in aerospace now that the space shuttle program has ended and efforts are under way to bring more private industry to Cape Canaveral and beyond.

Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, was particularly disappointed with the absence of a top 20 ranking since the state recently filled 15 of 16 designated top tech research positions at state schools.

If we filled 15 of the 16 positions at the quote 'top,' and were not in the top 20, what did we recruit? Bennett said.

It really bothers me that some of our universities do a wonderful job of creating graduate degrees in psychology and anthropology and lots of other stuff nobody can get a job in, he continued. Maybe some of the funding for the university systems would be a little bit better if we simply concentrate on teaching versus writing research papers.

The National Science Foundation report presented to the Senate committee on Monday placed the University of Florida 23rd in terms of federal research and development expenditures. The University of South Florida stood at 65, the University of Miami at 77 and Florida State University at 95.

The Baltimore, Md.-based Johns Hopkins University topped the list.

There was no talk Monday of state funding for high-level research, but senators expressed a need for the state to be competitive as Space Florida works to grow Floridas space industry.

Committee Chairman Sen. Thad Altman, R-Melbourne, said the state has done a good job recruiting life-science research businesses such as Burnham Medical Research Institute in Orlando, Torrey Pines Institute for Molecular Studies in Port St. Lucie, and Scripps Florida and the Max Planck Florida Institute, both in Jupiter. But, he added, to succeed in the aerospace field, from designing aircraft parts to satellite construction, the talent needs to be grown.

Ive seen numbers that show us 21st in the nation in terms of space research, Altman said. Were the fourth largest state in the union. We have the worlds premier space center. We should at least be in the top five. We should be No. 1.

Farrukh Alvi, director of Florida State Universitys Florida Center for Advanced Aeropropulsion, said if the committee and Senate want to build the research field, they must be committed to the endeavor.

You should demand results, but you have to provide resources for those who are succeeding, Alvi said. I think that we could be up there if were allowed to continue with this investment.

The center is a cooperative effort among FSU, UF, the University of Central Florida, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, and the Florida Institute of Technology.

None of the universities has everything that is needed, but when you add it all together it becomes competitive with Cal-Tech or UC-Berkley or MIT, Alvi said.It has allowed us to compete with programs you would never had thought we could compete with before.

Space Florida Chairman Frank DiBello said the state-created independent special district has been working to recruit new businesses because the shuttle program's ending has reduced the NASA work force at the Cape from more than 15,000 to 11,000. He said the number should fall below 9,000 as the shuttle era officially ends.

Were continuing to build our launch capability and our ability to process satellites and build ground infrastructure, because they are tools that will enable commercial enterprise, DiBello said. So our mission is to grow the size and diversity and health of the space industry in the state. And we committed ourselves to a three-fold increase in that sector by 2020.

Still, DiBello expressed some optimism for the long-term recovery of some of the jobs. AAR Airlift Group, which works with the Department of Defense, is expected to bring on 275 this year and the code-named project Syros is anticipated to create 550 jobs by 2015 at the Cape.

Also, he said, the planned Space Launch System, targeted to launch in 2017, is expected to create 1,500 to 2,000 jobs.

Reach Jim Turner at jturner@sunshinestatenews.com or at (850) 727-0859.

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