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Southeastern University Research Association


Prepared Remarks
March 18, 2014

It is a pleasure to be here today, and it is an honor for West Virginia University to host the Southeastern Universities Research Association.

The Southeastern Universities Research Association — which includes MIT, a handful of universities in Texas, and the University of Regina in Canada.


Apparently, geography is not your strong suit — unless the Mason-Dixon Line moved to Alaska.

But in all honesty, I am delighted that you will spend the next two days on our lovely campus.

Many of you know my colleague, Dr. Fred King, our vice president for research at West Virginia University, who also serves as our SURA trustee.

Fred serves gallantly on the SURA development committee and is always working on strengthening the University’s partnership with SURA.

He has told me special things about your organization, so despite the “southeastern” in your name, your association demonstrates that successful partnerships can burst through any geographical boundaries.

SURA has truly come a long way. As I understand it, your organization was formed in 1980 by a small group of research universities to bid on the construction of a national Continuous Electron Beam Accelerator Facility.

I instantly imagine a roomful of nerds getting together to plan this out. Then again, who I am to call someone a nerd? My kind of people.

From there, SURA and its member universities were subsequently selected by a joint Department of Energy-National Science Foundation committee to design, build, and operate in 1983 what The Washington Post described as “the most advanced experimental nuclear physics facility in the world.”

That facility has grown into the Jefferson Lab — the six-hundred-million-dollar premier nuclear physics research facility in the world.

Today, the Lab provides unique capabilities for a user community of approximately 1,300 researchers from 280 institutions worldwide.

Think about that for a moment.

This world-renowned research lab evolved from the power of partnership. Would one university be able to pull that off on its own? Likely not.

But when teams join forces for the sake of intellectual welfare, the path to discovery is infinite, and humankind benefits.

Nothing can bend a cohesive partnership.

Today there are more than 60 member universities in SURA. And your group’s focus and mission reflects those of our land-grant and research institutions.

As the new — and old — president of West Virginia University, I can say that we are proud and committed to serve as a member of SURA.

Just like our land-grant and research institutions, your group’s focus and mission have expanded to correspond with the needs of the 21st century.

At West Virginia University, we are grateful to work on wide-reaching projects that advance the cause of science, such as the Green Bank Telescope, located right here in West Virginia.

For those of you who do not know, the Green Bank Telescope is the world’s largest fully steerable radio telescope and is part of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory.

One of our many reasons for continuing support of the telescope is how it nurtures a younger generation of would-be scientists. Hundreds of teenage radio wave hunters from across the country have explored the magnificence of this telescope.

A few years ago, when the nation became increasingly interested in forming new generations of scientists, mathematicians, and engineers, West Virginia University faculty and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory created a project called the Pulsar Search Collaboratory.

The goal of the Collaboratory is to give high school students experience doing real STEM research. After all, the most effective means of learning is by doing.

In 2007, the Green Bank Telescope was in need of repair. It was unable to move and could only point at a fixed position in the sky. So during that time, two of our fabulous astronomers at West Virginia University — Maura McLaughlin and Duncan Lorimer — used the telescope to observe the sky as it drifted overhead.

And as the sky drifted by, they took data. And more data.

And more data.

By the end, they had more than 300 hours of observing time and acquired more than 30 terabytes of data. And those professors are not being ungenerous with their data. Through the Pulsar Search Collaboratory, they are giving young students the opportunity to use the data to search for new pulsars. How cool is that?

I understand some of you will be meeting with Maura and Duncan tomorrow. Prepare yourself to be amazed by their talent.

The Collaboratory between the University and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory is one shining example of an alliance that aims for the betterment of our people, particularly for future science wizards — the type of superstars who go on to do extraordinary things, like establish Jefferson Labs.

As we journey further into the 21st century, partnerships — whether across disciplines, across institutions, or across borders and time zones — will matter more than anything.

For so long, the American system of higher education has been the envy of the world. Our colleges are economic engines, generators of insights and breakthroughs, knowledge cities, and cultural communities.

That magnificent system is in jeopardy.

The journey to educational prosperity is littered with roadblocks. From budget cuts — on federal, state, and local levels — to the fact that last year, a record 21.6 million students enrolled in American universities, yet nearly two in five will never don a cap and gown.

These are the types of roadblocks we need to bulldoze over.

If we are not the architects of our future, we will be the victims of our destiny.

To adapt to the ever changing and ever more demanding world, we need to think outside of our own selves.

That is why collaborative research juggernauts like SURA are a necessary engine for the journey into the future.

That is why I have been working closely with Ohio Governor John Kasich to propose innovative recommendations on how the state of Ohio can simultaneously improve the quality and value of higher education.

The value of collaboration in higher education is why West Virginia University is working hand-in-hand with Ohio State University on researching the Appalachian Region’s developing shale energy industry. That joint project has already garnered a two-million-dollar National Science Foundation grant to study the microbial biodiversity found in deep underground shale formations.

We have gifted faculty from both universities working together on this.

And later today, I understand you will be touring our Forensics Crime Scene House — another product of inter-agency collaboration.

West Virginia University has the largest crime scene training complex in the world. This complex is used to prepare mock crime scenes so forensic and investigative science majors can learn processing techniques in a controlled environment. These involve everything from collection of shoe print evidence to simulated recovery of human remains.

It is not just West Virginia University faculty who has helped the complex flourish. Agencies such as the FBI and the ATF have staged mock raids for students and have contributed immensely to the coursework and techniques taught at the facility.

We all have come far by working together for our common good.

SURA — with its 60 member institutions — has come far.

And by working together across all mediums, we can continue to leverage our tremendous force, energy, vitality, innovation, and creativity as a catalyst for progress.

Our country is going through a fundamental economic re-set, which has been painful for many sectors, including higher education. They are counting on us to promote responsible energy production, to improve science and math education in our schools, to enhance information technology, to facilitate a better understanding of coastal, ocean and environmental phenomena, to nurture artists, to change lives, and to save lives.

These are challenging times, but I believe that moments of challenge bring forth moments of opportunity.

Land-grant universities were a bold new idea when President Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act in 1862, a perilous time in our nation’s history. Now, to fulfill our land-grant mission in the 21st century, we must again embrace innovation and change.

The history of our education landscape shows that we advance most rapidly when we advance hand-in-hand.

Thank you for being here and thank you for advancing the name of scientific research and discovery.

I will now gladly take any questions.