I just came from a breakfast that should have had twice as many attendees as it had. It was the debut of the new CEO of Science Foundation Arizona, William C. Harris. No one in Arizona even knows we have a science foundation, much less what its significance could be. Here in Arizona, if it’s not dirt and we can’t build on it, we’re not interested.
Harris doesn’t know that yet. He is moving here from Ireland, where he turned an entire country around by heading up Science Foundation Ireland and fostering greater cooperation between universities, industry, and the economic development organizations. When I visited Ireland in 1991, it was mostly beautiful vistas and sheep, with very poor people. Fifteen years later, it’s the only country in the EU that isn’t suffering brain drain. According to Harris, that’s because of Ireland’s laser-like focus on education. Just like Arizona.
But our state’s leadership isn’t stupid. Science Foundation Arizona was created by the Greater Phoenix Leadership, Inc. (GPL), Southern Arizona Leadership Council (SALC)and the Flagstaff 40 as a result of Arizona’s Bioscience Roadmap, developed by the Battelle Memorial Institute with funding from the Flinn Foundation. The economic development organizations and the major donors are in the know. But where are the people?
SFA has goals to (1) build and strengthen medical, scientific and engineering research programs and infrastructure in areas of greatest strategic value to Arizona’s competitiveness in the global economy, and (2) actively engage scientific research, academic and medical institutions representing both the public and private sectors on a worldwide basis. There are hopes that SFA will be active in helping Arizona to position itself as a hub of bioscience, industry and scientific advancements that lead to improved healthcare and quality of life throughout the state.
From Harris’s lips to God’s ears, as the old saying goes.
First, he will have to convince his fellow citizens that this matters. As leader of SFA, Harris will be responsible for fostering a culture that will build and strengthen medical, scientific and engineering research programs and infrastructure in areas of greatest strategic value to Arizona’s competitiveness in the global economy. He will also work to actively engage scientific research, academic and medical institutions representing both the public and private sectors on a worldwide basis.
He will need support to do this, because it’s not a one man job. But they didn’t even come out to meet him. Conspicuous by their absence at a Power Breakfast that often draws 500-600 attendees were many members of the current business community. Where were the corporate tables for Motorola? Intel? Phelps Dodge? Or even the homebuilders? I think they weren’t there because they don’t see its relevance to their current situations.
Harris comes to SFA with remarkable credentials, having served as founding director general of Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) for almost 5 years. His work of turning Ireland into an internationally collaborative partner with multiple biotech, academic-industry research groups and his establishment of a comprehensive grants program with an international review system was integral in Ireland’s success at building research investments in strategic areas and developing a knowledge driven economy.
Harris has authored more than 50 research papers and is a fellow of the American Association for the advancement of Science. In 2004, he received the Wiley Lifetime Achievement Award from California Polytechnic State University and was recently elected a member of the Royal Irish Academy. I’d like to be his new best friend, because he seems like a pretty smart guy. Wonder if his wife would like to chair the Heart Ball?
“Arizona has the capacity to position itself as a hub of bioscience, industry and scientific advancements that lead to improved healthcare and quality of life throughout the state,” says Harris, speaking at 7:30 AM Arizona time, 5:00 PM Ireland time.
What a metaphor. Time to have a celebratory drink in Ireland, but in Arizona we are just waking up.