State takes lead in science, technology

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Over the last few decades, Kentucky has gained a well-earned reputation for its groundbreaking work in science and technology.

We will forever be home to the world’s first self-contained artificial heart and the nation’s first hand transplant, for example, and two of our researchers were behind the world’s first 100 percent effective cancer vaccine.

We’ve taken the lead on Alzheimer’s disease research – the University of Kentucky is home to one of the country’s 10 original centers dedicated to finding a cure – and helping paralyzed victims through the University of Louisville’s Spinal Cord Injury Research Center, one of just 12 nationwide.

A key reason behind our success can be traced to the Bucks for Brains program that the General Assembly created about a dozen years ago.  Since then, $410 million have been awarded to our colleges and universities, which have provided a dollar-for-dollar match through private donations.

The state also offers money through several other programs designed to foster growth in high-tech jobs, and we set aside a portion of our annual tobacco settlement for lung cancer research.  Earlier this year, we adopted legislation that uses tax incentives to make college-owned business parks more attractive to companies.

Our two leading universities – UK and U of L – have set a high standard of excellence.  In addition to the work already mentioned, UK can boast a College of Pharmacy that is ranked fifth best in the nation, and the university just hosted an international conference focused on the side effects cancer treatments can have on the brain.

U of L, meanwhile, was recognized this past summer for its significant gains in federal research funding in science and engineering – only three schools across the country saw funding rise faster over the last decade – and it is working with the Owensboro Cancer Research Program to genetically turn the tobacco plant into a factory to mass produce such things as cancer drugs and flu vaccines.

UK and U of L are working together as well. In one of the more prominent ways, they are seeing if they can affordably split hydrogen from water by mimicking the way nature does it rather than the energy-intensive methods now used. If they can pull this off, the world will have a virtually endless supply of clean energy.

Similar research is being done to further clean-coal initiatives, including the use of algae to capture carbon dioxide.  A pilot project at a Winchester power plant to test this approach is already moving forward.

Our regional universities are doing ground-breaking work, too.  Morehead State University is a leader nationally in space science, and Eastern Kentucky University is known for its work on homeland security.  Murray State University is helping to keep our watersheds clean, and Kentucky State University has an international reputation for its work in aquaculture.

Northern Kentucky University is making a name for itself in a new field known as informatics, which covers careers in computers and technology; and Western Kentucky University just announced it has the country’s only university-based microscope that can zoom in on relatively large objects measuring up to 650 pounds.  This will be a valuable tool for manufacturers and for the study of historical artifacts.

These examples are just a few now taking place on our college campuses.  No one knows what these gains may lead to, but the potential is always there that a Kentuckian will be behind the next great cure or a startup company like Apple, which began in a garage, or Facebook, which was developed in a college dorm room.  The key is to give our students and faculty alike the tools they need to succeed and then see what they can do.

Rick Rand, D-Bedford, represents the 47th House District in the Kentucky General Assembly. He may be reached by writing to Room 351C, Capitol Annex, 702 Capitol Avenue, Frankfort, KY 40601, or leave a message at (800) 372-7181 – TTY (800) 896-0305.