Dr. Barrett Slenning isn't too polite to say that connections count when it comes to getting the attention of government site selectors. But the kind he's talking about have less to do with politics than with professional relationships.
"I don't know of too many other places where someone from a veterinary college can call the state's Secretary of Health and actually have somebody answer the phone," says Slenning, a veterinarian and associate professor at the North Carolina State University's College of Veterinary Medicine. "But that happens here because, over the years, we've created relationships with private-sector businesses, state and local government, and other academic institutions."
In fact, Slenning claims that willingness to work together is a major reason why the Umstead Research Farm in Granville County, N.C., made the cut to the final five prospective sites for the Department of Homeland Security's new National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF). Nestled near the heart of North Carolina's Research Triangle, the Umstead site draws from the Triangle's reputation for attracting big-time bio and pharmaceutical industry players such as Merck & Co. and Glaxo-Wellcome, Inc. But it's not the only short list site with solid credentials.
The Flora Industrial Park in Madison County, Miss.; Kansas State University at Manhattan, Kan.; the Texas Research Park in San Antonio, Texas; and the University of Georgia in Athens, Ga., are credible contenders, too. And all made the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) final-five list of potential sites.
The sweepstakes to host the NBAF began in January 2006, when the DHS announced its intentions to establish a new Safety Level 4 facility to research disease-borne health and security threats from bird flu to bio-terror agents, and to develop vaccines capable of neutralizing them. Institutions and consortia representing 29 sites in 11 states offered themselves up as contenders for the proposed facility. These ranged from the venerable Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory at the University of California at Davis; to an optimistic consortium connecting the University of Tennessee, the University of Kentucky, and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory; to a site in remote Somerset, Ky.
After yearlong proposal reviews, DHS pared its list down to 18 potential lab locations in 11 states. After a series of site visits, in July 2007, the agency whittled the list down even further to just five prospective locations. Now, as environmental impact studies - that will, among other things, measure community support for the facility - get under way, site promoters are pondering their chances for landing the project, which will pump millions into their economies even before it officially opens in 2013.
"The impact of a 520,000-square-foot facility over four or five years is about $20 million just in construction jobs and general economic impact," says Ross Tucker, vice president of economic development for the MetroJackson Chamber of Commerce in Jackson, Miss., whose jurisdiction includes Mississippi's site entry, the Flora Industrial Park. "Overall, we estimate that the facility, if we are chosen for it, will have an economic impact of $3.5 billion over 20 years."
According to Tucker, the Flora site may not have the historic technical clout some other contenders enjoy. However, proximity to the University of Mississippi's Medical Center, an already established research center, and to Mississippi State University, long engaged in animal research work, is in its favor. The fact that Battelle Corp., manager of five national laboratories across the United States (including national laboratories at Oak Ridge and Idaho) is part of the Flora site consortium doesn't hurt either.
"We're looking at this in the same way Oak Ridge, Tenn., did before the national lab located there," says Ross of his site's chances to win the facility. "Even Georgia had only a university before the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) arrived there."
In fact, its 60-mile proximity to the CDC in Atlanta makes the University of Georgia at Athens site - home to the school's College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences - prime real estate for the new NBAF, according to Dr. David Lee, the university's vice president for research. Like North Carolina, Georgia has become a destination for both public- and private-sector biomedical firms and service suppliers eager to take advantage of plenty of infrastructure, including an experienced work force and a reputation for cooperative networking - all in a science-savvy environment.
"In order for the NBAF to fulfill its agenda, it can't be located in a cornfield," says Lee. "If there were to be an infectious disease emergency or a bio-terror incident, the NBAF would have to assemble a scientific team in order to respond." According to Lee, the University of Georgia site is just an hour's drive from the CDC and also enjoys proximity to the USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) Russell Research Center and a USDA research service facility in Atlanta, so such a scientific response team could be assembled within a matter of hours. Meanwhile, Lee adds, the university has long been highly involved in vaccine and other bio- and agro-research endeavors and will stay that course whether or not it's awarded the NBAF facility.
But according to Dr. James Guikema, Associate Provost at Kansas State University (KSU) in Manhattan, Kan., there is plenty of infrastructure in Kansas too. It's well established, he says, and it's growing. "Kansas State has been in food safety research for 50 years," says Guikema. "So this wouldn't be new for us."
What is new is a Bio Safety Level 3 facility designed for plant and animal infectious disease research that is slated to open in January 2008 at KSU. Guikema says the new the Biosecurity Research Institute could be a useful complement to a new Bio Safety Level 4 NBAF facility. "One of the things we hope is that the institute would be used as a lily pad - a starting point - for NBAF research projects," he says.