By: Tom Beal
ARIZONA DAILY STAR
April 3, 2011
“Science City” – that’s how Tucson should be known and branded, says UA Dean of Science Joaquin Ruiz.
To begin with, research science is a big deal at the University of Arizona, where it brings in more money than either tuition or state support, with last year being the best ever despite – or perhaps because of – the economic downturn.
Stimulus money captured an additional $83 million last year. The university took in $602 million in grants, contracts and gifts for the fiscal year that ended June 30. It spent $490 million on research.
The impact of that is felt in the larger economic community, said Ruiz, in the form of research contracts with area businesses, companies spun off from university research projects, and jobs.
“A great majority of the money in grants and contracts is used to pay salaries of people. It’s not just buying a lot of equipment. I’m not an economist, but the multiplier effect of that has to be substantial,” he said.
Beyond that, many technology-heavy industries are important to Tucson’s economy, from aerospace and defense to solar.
“Science City” is the label Ruiz used for his college’s November special report on research, published in the Arizona Daily Star, and he and local business leaders have discussed his broader branding idea (see related story).
Astronomy and optics, where Tucson has always excelled, are only part of the story, Ruiz said.
The optical science businesses spun off from the university are now being joined by “more and more biotech,” he noted.
Medical and biotech research will be the big push for the university in coming years, said Rick Myers, a member of the Arizona Board of Regents and CEO of the nonprofit medical research group Critical Path Institute.
The regents are challenging UA to double its grants in those two areas, he said.
He also sees opportunities in research in alternative energy, with the growth of the solar zone at the UA’s Tech Park. Border security is another growing research area, he said.
“The UA has strengths in all those areas,” he said.
Federal money provides 60 to 65 percent of the UA’s research budget in any given year, Myers said, but industry partnerships provide a good chunk as well.
Engineering Dean Jeff Goldberg said his college is adding industry partners, both small and large. The UA has research infrastructure that can help small businesses grow and provide essential services to larger ones.
“With places like Raytheon and Honeywell, it’s not coming to them for philanthropy, it’s ‘How does the College of Engineering help them build their businesses relative to the mission we have?’ ” Goldberg said.
For UA’s Ruiz, it all comes down to this:
“We need to be proud of our community, and being connected to science is something that makes me proud. It’s a moniker that would give us all pride.”
FINDING A moniker
A Science City moniker for Tucson has been discussed by business leaders, says Laura Shaw, senior vice president of Tucson Regional Economic Opportunities Inc., or TREO.
“From TREO’s perspective, we do like selling the sciences across many industries. From a business development perspective, we really like it. We think it’s a good starting point,” Shaw said.
Shaw said three of the four areas of emphasis for TREO – aerospace/defense, biosciences and solar – have definite science relationships.
Whether “Science City” is the best brand to represent all of that for TREO is still an open question, she said. TREO is currently doing some marketing studies to see what the companies it wants to recruit need to hear about greater Tucson.
“We don’t want to come up with something that is great but doesn’t mean anything to the companies we’re talking to,” she said.
Even Southern Arizona’s tourism, centered on its natural setting, is science-based in many ways.
Kitt Peak National Observatory is one such attraction. The working observatory about 55 miles southwest of Tucson attracts about 45,000 visitors per year, said Rich Fedele, its manager of public outreach.
The observatory drives scientific research in addition to being a tourist destination. “It’s the public and research coming together,” Fedele said. “That doesn’t happen in too many places.”
University-managed facilities such as Biosphere 2 north of Tucson also connect tourism with research. More than 100,000 people are expected to visit the massive environmental research laboratory in Oracle this year.
Public tours are available as well at the UA’s Steward Observatory Mirror Lab, which manufactures the world’s largest telescope mirrors.
The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum – a top tourism draw – is also science-based, as are Kartchner Caverns State Park and parts of the annual Tucson gem and mineral shows.
Contact reporter Tom Beal at [email protected] or 573-4158.