N.C. Research Campus could land federal research center
By Emily Ford
KANNAPOLIS ó The federal government could be the next tenant at the N.C. Research Campus.
If Congress agrees, the U.S. Department of Agriculture will open a nutrition and agriculture research center at the life sciences hub in Kannapolis, which eventually could employ 150 people and attract hundreds of additional jobs.
The Research Campus has long pursued a federal presence in Kannapolis, which would provide a key recruiting tool for developers.
“It allows for an avenue to create more jobs and attract more industries,” said Leanne Powell, chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Larry Kissell (D-N.C.), who requested a $500,000 earmark to establish the center in Kannapolis. “It benefits industry to be able to work with federal government.”
The $500,000 would serve as seed money to open the center and hire a few scientists and support staff. If successful, the center eventually could have an annual budget of $25 million, advocates say.
The USDA would move into the David H. Murdock Core Laboratory. Kannapolis would become the seventh city in the nation to have a USDA Human Nutrition Research Center.
Federal scientists would collaborate with the eight universities at the campus to research nutrition and agriculture at the molecular level.
Kissell’s proposed $500,000 earmark passed a committee vote last week and now goes before the U.S. House of Representatives.
“The biggest hurdle is getting it out of committee, and now that we’ve done that, we’re very optimistic,” Powell said.
Kissell requested the funding as part of the 2010 agriculture appropriations bill. The House should vote before the July 4 recess.
“We expect full passage,” Powell said.
Then, the earmark must survive the Senate, where North Carolina senators Kay Hagan and Richard Burr have pledged their support, Powell said.
“They have assured us that this is a top priority for them,” she said.
It could take months for the Senate to vote, but if the appropriation passes, Powell said she expects the USDA to set up shop in Kannapolis “fairly quickly.”
The city of Kannapolis and campus developer Castle & Cooke North Carolina lobbied for the USDA center in March in Washington D.C., city manager Mike Legg said.
Adding a federal component would “complete the loop” at the Research Campus, Legg said.
“It creates opportunity that doesn’t exist,” he said.
The USDA would make the campus more appealing to investors, Legg said. A lack of venture capital to fund start-up companies has frustrated campus leaders.
A federal presence also would attract research dollars, Legg said.
While faculty salaries at the campus are paid by the state, lead scientists must compete for grants to fund their research, largely from the U.S. National Institutes of Health.
As the USDA center grows, “more money starts to flow and further legitimizes the campus in the eyes of decision-makers at the NIH and other agencies,” Legg said.
A specialized USDA unit called Agricultural Research Services runs the six Human Nutrition Research Centers in the country.
“We are the major intramural research agency for the USDA,” said Dr. David Klurfeld, the unit’s national program leader for human nutrition. “We decide the research questions.”
Three centers are fully federally owned and operated, and three are operated in cooperation with academic partners. The last center opened in the 1990s, and all have budgets of between $5 million and $20 million.
The smallest employs 60 people and the largest has a staff of about 200.
In the five years he’s been on the job, Klurfeld said a university has come to him at least once a year asking for a USDA research center.
He agreed to the proposal from the Research Campus.
“The fact is that this is a new center with cutting-edge science and innovation,” Klurfeld said. “It helped that your congressional delegation has done what others have not been able to do.”
Namely, finding a new appropriation to launch the center, instead of moving other money from one facility to another.
The presidential election also helped, Klurfeld said.
“There is a different climate with the change in administration,” he said.
Lawmakers and city leaders would pursue additional federal dollars each year for the new research center.
Dr. Steven Zeisel, the director of the UNC Nutrition Research Institute in Kannapolis, wrote the original proposal two years ago to bring the USDA to town.
Zeisel said Friday he could not comment on recent developments because he’s not familiar with the current strategy.
“I’ve been completely out of any discussions,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s changed.”
He referred questions to Dr. Steve Leath, vice president for research for the UNC system, who could not be reached.
Legg, however, said the campus is still using Zeisel’s original proposal, which outlines a center similar to the Beltsville Human Nutrition Research Center near Washington D.C.
The largest of USDA’s human nutrition research facilities, the Beltsville center investigates the role of nutrients and food components at the cellular level, as well as examining the impact of dietary interventions on health in animal and human research.
Its mission, to define the role that food plays in human health and reduce disease through better nutrition, echoes a goal at the Research Campus.