By Jo McIntyre
Small Times Correspondent

PORTLAND, Ore., Oct. 17, 2001 — When Intel talks, the Oregon legislature listens. And when nearly every large high-tech company located in the state talks, the legislature acts.

By the end of the current session this summer, lawmakers had voted to award the Oregon University System $812 million in


Laser micromachining is among the
areas to get a boost, with more
money going to Oregon State
University’s microtechnology initiative.
general fund dollars for the coming two years, a $50 million increase over the governor’s initial budget proposal. Further, legislators appropriated $386 million for capital construction, with funds coming from gifts, bonds and fees.

Educators also expect additional contributions from individuals and industry to boost the state’s engineering education. A significant provision in the funding bill was $23 million which was set aside for the five-year, $180 million public-private funding goal to build Oregon State University’s College of Engineering into a top 25 institution.

“It’s something that industry has been basically demanding for several years,” said Chris A. Bell, associate dean of the College of Engineering at OSU in Corvallis. “They need a high quality and a high quantity engineering work force,” yet for years they have had to recruit engineers from outside the state.

In addition to planning for a new engineering building, beefing up faculty and doubling the number of engineering graduates within five years, much of the excitement surrounding the additional funding is due to the MECS, Microtechnology-based Energy and Chemical Systems, research program at OSU, Bell said.

MECS already has $4 million in grants and 20 faculty involved in the multidisciplinary team.

“Our major effort in this area is to apply electronics techniques to microminiaturize devices,” said Kevin Drost, head of the mechanical engineering department as well as the MECS program. Research efforts also include space, bioscience, and military applications.

The legislative lobbying effort was led by Jim Johnson of Intel; Scott Gibson, local venture investor and founder of Sequent Computer Systems; and Skip Rung of Hewlett-Packard. Also helping out was a group of engineers, software developers, venture capitalists, attorneys and other business leaders, who urged lawmakers to make higher education a top priority.

Called the New Economy Coalition, they barnstormed throughout the state with their message that the future of economic development for the entire state depends on an educated work force. Engineering, they argued to convince rural legislators, is the backbone of all natural resource production, whether timber, agriculture, as well as high-tech computer-related manufacturing.

Other key recommendations from the coalition were to support a top-tier biosciences program in the Portland area, enable higher education technology transfer, and ask voters to change the state constitution to allow state universities to hold equity in companies developed through university research.

Lobbying from inside the system were OSU President Paul Risser, who early recognized the need for this effort, Bell said, and OSU College of Engineering Dean Ron Adams, “who came to us from Tektronix with a strong industry and academic background. He understood the big picture very well.” Tektronix, founded by two Oregonians more than 50 years ago, started the high-tech boom in Oregon.

Also helping from the inside was the MECS program, which isn’t just mechanical engineering, Bell noted. The core group of faculty involved in the program come from other engineering disciplines: industrial and manufacturing, chemical, electrical, computer, nuclear, biochemistry and biophysics, as well as researchers from the Colleges of Science, Agriculture and Forestry.

Some of the cooler experiments taking place now are investigating microreactors that can clean up toxic chemicals using catalysts that are almost at the molecular scale, optics using living fish scales as color sensors, and a bioscientific investigation into how leaves cool.

The interdisciplinary approach puts OSU on the leading edge of research programs, Bell said. “We have a good core of people who can work together and cross college boundaries. It’s what we can do well here, because we have a collaborative culture at OSU.”

The College of Engineering hasn’t waited for state money to arrive to get started on their drive to reach the top-25 ranking. Since Fall of 2000, the college has hired 30 new faculty members, using private contributions. It’s easier to recruit top faculty member these days.

“Part of our private fundraising involves raising $65 million for endowed chairs to enable us to bring on 19 new faculty. We hope to have about 200 tenured and nontenured faculty. “There is a sense of excitement here that they don’t see in other universities,” Bell said. “The MECS program is part of that.”


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