UB Today Alumni Magazine Online - Winter 2002
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From the Provost

Discovering the meaning of research

 

The most important characteristic of UB is that it is a research university. The research function permeates all that we do. It changes the nature of the education we provide and extends the influence we can have on our community and our region.

With research, new knowledge is created, a process that is continuous and never ending. Some of our products reach large audiences through books of history or literature, or through the production of widely viewed works of art. Other products of our knowledge and investigations reach only very small audiences who are experts in their respective disciplines of mathematics, philosophy or science.

The value of our work, however, does not depend on the size of the audience as much as it does on the manner in which we advance knowledge, and the effects that knowledge can have on the world, usually in the long term. For instance, a mathematical formula that is impossible for me to understand but is understandable to experts in the field may well help predict the weather, or plot the path of comets and planets, or design optimally efficient shapes for automobiles.

Research sometimes produces an immediate benefit, as when a PSA test to help diagnose prostate cancer was invented and developed right here in Buffalo. On the other hand, research may appear to produce no benefit at all, as was the common perception of lasers when they were first discovered 45 years ago. Now, lasers serve as essential devices in surgery and are used in consumer electronics devices, such as CD players, to name only two of their many applications.

 
photo: Frank Miller
Peter Bush (center), director of the South Campus Instrumentation Center (SCIC)—a resource used in the STOR initiative—presents results of competitive analysis to John Anthon, president of the Great American Tool Company (left) and Catherine Green, former SCIC technical specialist. Such projects use sophisticated instruments to the benefit of small companies. The income generated supports the instrumentation, also used in advanced research.
 
And, too, research often produces the opportunity to expand our understanding and build upon a foundation, so that future research can produce tangible results. In this way, the apparently abstract research in physics on measuring nuclear magnetic resonance eventually led to the production of MRI machines that now help us understand and remedy a host of previously fatal or disabling medical conditions.

At UB, research affects the very nature of the education we provide. Students have the opportunity to meet researchers at the cutting edge of their fields—whether in the humanities, art, music, science, social sciences, medicine or engineering—because our faculty are at the forefront of their disciplines. However, it can take several years before these new discoveries appear in textbooks used by undergraduates. I often tell my introductory psychology students that the material in their brand-new, just-issued textbooks is at least four years out of date. The research I am running in my laboratory right now will take six months to be written up and submitted to a journal. Add another six months for editorial review and a year or so to be published in a journal. Then the textbook author can read my publication, reference it in the textbook, which then takes at least two more years to be edited and published.

Now, the basics in any field don't change very often, but the edge of each field is constantly moving forward. Only at a research university can you learn what is now going on in intellectual pursuits around the world. The atmosphere of discovery and the competition with other major research universities produces an excitement on campuses such as ours that is invigorating for all.

UB's research also spurs the development of the economy in Western New York, as technologies are transferred to commercialization. To facilitate this activity, we have formed a new office of Science, Technology Transfer and Economic OutReach (STOR), to promote the transfer of the university's technology for society's use and benefit, while generating unrestricted income in the support of research and education at UB. STOR will also foster partnerships between the university and the business community, while providing access to UB's resources in a manner that will generate economic growth. This office will bridge the gap between scientific research and the application of that research to technologies, devices, diagnostic tests and medical treatments—the ultimate commercialization of these scientific discoveries.

At UB, we need to develop a technology research fund that can support projects bridging our research and commercialization efforts. While there is funding available for basic research, along with venture funding for finished products, no funding currently exists for so-called “gap” research that is needed to bridge these worlds. Indeed, UB hopes to be a leader in engendering commercialization by raising money to fund gap research. In this way, based on the superb basic research of our university, we hope to enhance the 21st-century economy in Buffalo and Western New York. In the final analysis, research fosters better education and better services to our community, and that, after all, is the hallmark of UB.

Elizabeth D. Capaldi
Provost, University at Buffalo

 
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