I recently received a phone call from the vice president for business development for Draper Laboratory. He had just landed at Tampa International Airport on his way to the University of South Florida. He was excited because Draper and USF had embarked upon a three-year, $5.45 million grant from the Gates Foundation to address the global challenges of malaria, a disease that claims more than 1 million people every year.
He then talked about Draper's need for additional space in USF's incubator to address their rapidly expanding collaboration. On his trip to Tampa Bay, he also visited the Multi Chip Module Facility in Pinellas County, an $11 million investment, where Draper's technology team is crafting microscopic modules that will be applied to medicine, forensics, defense and our energy sector.
In the three-plus years Draper has operated in Tampa Bay, it has hired 52 people at an average annual salary of $86,000. Draper has submitted more than $120 million in joint research proposals since it arrived. This phone conversation bore directly on a major concern for all Floridians — job creation — and is directly related to the ongoing debate about funding for our state universities.
As a member of the St. Petersburg business community, I have always been impressed with how important USF has been to our regional economy. The data show that for decades USF has been, and continues to be, a major economic driver in our region. An excellent example is the U.S. Geological Survey and its formal association with USF that began in 1988. That year USF won the national competition for a new coastal geology laboratory, and six federal scientists set up temporary headquarters in a podiatrist's office in downtown St. Petersburg. What began as a single laboratory has now expanded to three, and that handful of workers now numbers 95.
The financial benefits to the university and the region have been considerable. In the last five years alone the USGS has spent $67 million supporting its research center in St. Petersburg, 94 times more than our city spent to provide the agency with a laboratory.
The USGS has been a major part of our emergence as the home for the largest marine science center in the southeastern United States. And without USF, this simply would not have happened. The entire USGS process is a model for effective university, business, civic and legislative collaboration.
USF continues bringing important economic and technological victories to our region. In November 2006 SRI International, which has home offices in Menlo Park, Calif., announced it would open a new high-technology research facility in the Port of St. Petersburg. For SRI, USF's Center for Ocean Technology was the primary attraction. This group developed a number of advanced sensing systems, including one (underwater mass spectrometer) used to track oil in the northeastern gulf during the BP spill.
Without USF's advanced technical capability SRI would not have invested in Florida. In the five years SRI has operated here, it has expanded its full-time engineering/technical staff from 15 to 86 at an average salary of $99,000.
And that recent phone call I received from Draper's vice president would never have come without SRI. After all, it was SRI that initially asked Draper to consider expanding its technical operations from Cambridge, Mass., to Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.
Thanks to USF, and the many partners they so effectively entrain, these research/technical groups have become an important part of our region's economic fabric. A 2010 recent analysis by the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council showed that the Marine Science Cluster in Bayboro Harbor had 1,622 people employed by 12 agencies with household incomes totaling $143 million. Does this not constitute an important economic engine that warrants additional financial fuel?
Given the substantive, multiyear cuts that our state universities have absorbed over the past four years and the pressing need for jobs, it is time the citizens of this state were provided with a clear, objective and extensive economic analysis of our universities. Our university system should be seriously considered, not simply by credit hours delivered or degrees granted, but also as a potentially critical partner that is integral to improving Florida's economy.
It is time to discard politics and analytically address what is best for this state. The question is simple: With limited dollars available, where is it strategic to invest? The answer is easy: our universities and all they do for our economy and our future.
Peter R. Betzer, Ph.D., is president and CEO of the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership Inc. He is the former dean of the University of South Florida's College of Marine Science.