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Mizzou Engineering dean touts opportunities for science leadership

Mizzou Engineering Dean Jim Thompson, left center, consults during a St. Louis Science Center panel discussion with John "Jack" Galmiche, president and chief executive officer of St. Louis public television station KET.C Also shown on the far left is Marcia Mellitz, president and chief executive officer for the St. Louis-based Center for Emerging Technologies and at the podium Doug King, the St. Louis Science Center president and chief executive officer.Photo by Vicki Hodder

The University of Missouri could fill a national scientific niche by marrying its defense-oriented expertise with its life sciences resources, MU College of Engineering Dean Jim Thompson recently told a panel of regional science advocates.

Thompson spoke during an Oct. 13 symposium that concluded the St. Louis Science Center’s SciFest 08, a five-day festival aimed at educating and interesting the public in science. He joined 12 other academic, business and media leaders in a panel discussion that focused on ways in which the St. Louis area could lead the nation in science and technology development.

University research represents an economic opportunity to strengthen Missouri, Thompson contended. Combining the university’s defense and life sciences expertise—in such fields as nanotechnology and computer science—could create a niche that would generate as well as attract business development, he said.

“Missouri is among the top five in Department of Defense (DoD) research,” Thompson later said. “Leveraging the extensive DoD investments by transferring defense technologies to life sciences applications would be good business for Missouri.”

University research results and faculty expertise in life sciences and defense can help existing companies to be more competitive and can facilitate the successful formation and growth of new, start-up companies, he added.

Other panelists pointed as well to life sciences as an area in which the St. Louis region has the potential to lead, but argued that regional leaders must support those capabilities in order to capitalize on them. Science and science education in the region suffers from a lack of funding, several panelists said.

“We have to see a greater investment, I think, on the part of the state in science as well as in education,” said panel member Thomas George, University of Missouri-St. Louis chancellor and a chemistry and physics professor.

Several panelists maintained that winning such support would involve improving communication between scientists and the public.

Scientific knowledge must be translated into understandable terms if people are to appreciate its value, said Jai Nagarkatti, president and chief executive officer of Sigma-Aldrich Corp., a St. Louis-based life science and high technology company. Scientists should strive to interest young people in science careers, he said.

Scientists also should provide leadership for an attitude that embraces science rather than fears it, said Donn Rubin, executive director of The Coalition for Plant and Life Sciences based in St. Louis.

SciFest organizers seek to do just that, using methods reminiscent of those proposed by the panelists. Science center leaders plan to make the first-time festival an annual tradition, said Doug King, the science center’s president and chief executive officer.

“This is the last day of the SciFest, but we’re only now getting started,” King said.

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