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A progress report on the New Florida program

TAMPA — The announcement came in 2010 with a promise to transform Florida's economy.

With $10 million from the Legislature, higher education leaders were ready to set projects across the state university system into motion.

The money was split into 31 grants — funding everything from research to new hires, all with the intention to create the state's new "knowledge-based economy."

So, has it worked?

That's one of many things Sen. JD Alexander wants to know, as part of a massive public records request sent to university system Chancellor Frank Brogan last month that's due today. Here are some highlights of the effort so far:

State University System Climate Change Task Force

Florida Atlantic University: $175,000

Florida State University: $100,000

University of Florida: $125,000

The money helped create the first formal collaborative university group to study global warming and its implications. The group, which also has involved most of the other state universities, meets every couple of weeks.

"We're really understanding what the process for change is, when it will happen, and how we can move our economy so that the bad effects are minimized and good effects maximized," said task force member Len Berry, the director of FAU's Center of Environmental Studies. "It's absolutely critical to the tourist economy to understand that."

As for the results, he says, wait and see.

"It doesn't create 100,000 jobs a day," Berry said, "but it creates a process that will help drive the economy in the right direction down the road."

The Sunshine State Education and Research Computing Alliance

Florida State University: $150,000

University of Florida: $200,000

University of South Florida: $100,000

This collaboration aims to bring together digital resources at the state's public and private universities so they can work together on research projects at sserca.org. For example, it allowed FSU and UF, which both have powerful electron microscopes and imaging tools, to pool their resources with the goal of supporting research of HIV and AIDS, heart disease, hypertension and cancer.

Microgravity research and education with the Kennedy Space Center and Space Florida

University of Central Florida: $375,000

UCF got the money to conduct scientific experiments in space, catching rides on private companies' suborbital rockets that are designed for future tourist use. For example, said Josh Colwell, an associate physics professor who is leading the project, researchers are now studying the way particles collide without gravity to try to understand how all matter comes together, like in the early stages of the solar system. The research is important scientifically, he said, but it's also important for the training it's giving to students — Florida's future science and engineering pioneers, he says. "We're trying to capitalize on what we see as part of the new wave of doing research in space," Colwell said. "This commercial suborbital industry is a new game-changing industry that we believe Florida can play a role in. … Having a better-trained science and engineering workforce that we're enabling through hands-on engagement is probably the most immediate, obvious benefit." He said the money also helps UCF conduct training sessions with K-12 teachers to give them resources to better prepare their students to enter science fields.

Optimizing detection, prevention and treatment of infectious diseases

University of Florida: $275,000

University of South Florida: $200,000

Researchers from these schools are studying new drugs to combat diseases spread by mosquitoes. The goal is to find faster ways to get drugs and treatments for diseases like malaria, dengue, equine encephalitis and West Nile virus, from the research stage to the market. "There's tremendous potential in the state, and we have the resources, but there hasn't been a whole lot of integration between universities and industry," said Hartmut Derendorf, chairman of UF's pharmaceutics department.

Boost for USF's marine science program

University of South Florida: $150,000

USF's marine science program hosts the state university system's Florida Institute of Oceanography. It got the extra money to help hire a new dean for the college: Jacqueline Dixon, a geochemist who was the dean of the University of Miami's College of Arts and Sciences. Dixon used part of that money for four interdisciplinary research projects. One, with the U.S. Geological Survey, is studying ocean acidification, which Dixon says is crucial to protecting Florida's sea life — a big part of our economy. Two are with Mote Marine Laboratory studying gene therapy for coral reefs and autonomous underwater vehicles. The fourth is with the USF College of Medicine, studying a virus in sea lions with the intention of learning more about the immunologic response. "It's an important part of development for new jobs," Dixon said, "green jobs, but also blue jobs."

Institution on Aging

University of West Florida: $350,000

The idea is to develop an institution with public and private entities to study the challenges of aging, particularly in the Florida Panhandle. The new Center on Aging is working to figure out how to better train senior service providers in Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa and Walton counties. UWF says it has now established relationships with local agencies, hospitals, businesses, military and faith-based organizations to promote collaboration. The center also is working on new grant proposals.

Kim Wilmath can be reached at kwilmath@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3337.

A progress report on the New Florida program 01/02/12 [Last modified: Monday, January 2, 2012 10:02pm]

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