Category Archives: Science & Technology

Planning for the Solar Eclipse

by Bill Tracy

As a backyard astronomer, here’s my take on why Virginians might want to “get out of Dodge” on August 21. Just like Dodge City, Kan., Virginia will be close to, but not inside the path of totality for the Great American Eclipse. Therefore Virginia will experience a partial solar eclipse. Virginia’s partial eclipse will range from about 80% in NoVA, up to about 95% coverage in Bristol. But even a 95% eclipse is not rare, nor is it a very exciting experience for astronomy hobbyists.

Only a Total Solar Eclipse qualifies as a once-in-a-lifetime event for Bacon’s Rebellion reader’s bucket lists.

Why is a total solar eclipse something that must be seen to be believed? To answer that question, we must delve into the fundamental differences between human eyesight and a camera. For many distant objects, in and beyond our Milky Way galaxy, a time-exposed photograph, for example by the Hubble Space Telescope, provides the most spectacular color and detail. In such cases, the camera/telescope combo wins as the best way to observe a deep-sky object.

Human eyesight, however, is far superior to a camera for certain “close by” events in our own solar system. This includes comets, and the greatest spectacle of all, the Total Eclipse of the Sun.

The superiority of the human eye is perhaps best described from my own observing experience. The human eye is better able to see gradations of contrast in nebulous objects such as comets. For example, when the famous comet Hale-Bopp passed our way in 1997, I spent quite a bit of time sketching drawings of the swirls and details that could only be seen by the naked eye through a telescope. By comparison, photographs taken at the same time revealed a cloudy, over-exposed image almost totally devoid of the detail visible to the eye.

Therefore, the old saying “a picture is worth a thousand words” definitely does not apply for a Total Solar Eclipse. I am expecting to see marvelous details in the Sun’s corona dancing around the circular dark mask of the Moon, not mention other sensory phenomena such as the confused behavior of wildlife, the diamond ring effect, Baily’s beads, and perhaps even flying shadows.

Keep in mind, two important observing tools that augment what the human eye can see are binoculars and telescopes. I personally plan to lug my 6-inch Dobsonian/Reflector telescope out to the Saint Louis metro area, where we have family. On the day of the eclipse we will head for totality around Carbondale, Ill., or alternately modify our plan if necessary due to weather and traffic considerations.

Eye safety is a very important topic. During the partial eclipse, it is imperative to use eye protection at all tines. Eye protection most commonly consists of properly certified solar filter film which can be used for eclipse glasses and for sun screens used to cover the front optics of binoculars, cameras and telescopes. My understanding is that a particular safety concern applies to locations like Bristol. As much as a 95% partial eclipse still requires eye protection, even if you mistakenly think you can look directly at the Sun’s thin crescent. Extended observing of the Sun’s thin crescent without eye protection can damage your eyes (eclipse blindness). Therefore Virginia’s partial solar eclipse necessitates eye protection for all, at all times.

Only during the approximately 2-minute duration of eclipse totality is it allowable to view the eclipse directly with your naked eyes. In fact, viewing with your naked eyes is the only way to properly observe the 100% total eclipse. Reportedly, out of fear, a few folks always leave their eye protection on for the total eclipse…but that is a mistake. The brief 2-minute period of totality is when I will use my telescope and binoculars intermittently to augment what my own eyes can see, and I will try to get some photos.

Regarding travel to the zone of totality, even Bristol residents would have to travel about an hour south on I81 to get to a good viewing location in Tennessee or North Carolina. Other Virginians like myself in NoVA will have longer treks. Traffic will most likely be challenging on the day of the eclipse. Therefore be prepared for emergencies, and be safe.

It’s time to go and get ready for our bucket-list adventure. And so. as amateur astronomers always say: Clear Skies!

For more information see the website GreatAmericanEcipse.com.

Bill Tracy, a retired engineer, lives in Northern Virginia.

A Patch in Time Saves Nine

The WannaCry and Petya cyber-assaults on banks, airports and other businesses in Europe in May used a vulnerability in Microsoft software to infect machines and spread around the world. Microsoft had issued a patch to close the back door months earlier, but many users never installed the update. Ironically, when Microsoft creates a software patch, it tips off bad guys to a previously unrecognized vulnerability. Cyber-criminals can create a virus to exploit that vulnerability sure in the knowledge that many corporations will fail to update the all of the thousands of computers and devices in their system.

The single-most effective thing that any IT manager can do to maintain security is to promptly install software patches. The task sounds pretty basic. But it’s easier said than done.

Christiansburg-based FoxGuard Solutions helps clients keep software up to date on critical infrastructure such as power grids, wind turbines and nuclear power plants. Founded in 1981, the company has seen its cyber-security business expand at a compounded growth rate of 42% over the past five years.

As far as FoxGuard CEO Marty Muscatello is aware, none of its customers were affected by the WannaCry and Petya attacks, reports Jacob Demmit with the Roanoke Times, after accompanying U.S. Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, on a tour of the FoxGuard facility. The company’s software is used in 40 different states and 35 countries. Reports Demmit:

FoxGuard has been using a $4.3 million cooperative agreement from the U.S. Department of Energy since 2013 to develop tools to track software updates and patches for 128 companies in the critical infrastructure industry.

It’s pretty easy to keep a single home computer up to date, but that becomes increasingly difficult when an IT department is trying to protect a power plant that could have 100,000 different machines across a power grid. A company might not even be aware of some computers on its network that could let hackers in, like an air conditioning system.

FoxGuard, it would seem, has a bright future, for its market will expand exponentially. As the Internet of Things takes off, embedding microchips and wireless in billions of devices, corporations will be hard-pressed to keep track of them all. Patching them all will be almost impossible, for Original Equipment Manufacturers typically stop updating software for devices they no longer manufacture. The challenge is particularly acute for electric utilities, which have cobbled together multiple generations of technology to operate their systems. As they move increasingly toward flexible “smart grids” to accommodate solar and wind power, they will install thousands of sensors and actuators across their systems, potentially making them even more vulnerable to cyber-attacks.

For a monthly fee, says the Roanoke Times, FoxGuard tracks all those machines and makes sure the client knows of every update on a timely basis. The company can even download and test the update in its own lab to check for compatibility issues before installing it in the field.

Bacon’s bottom line: The news brings daily remembers of how vulnerable the global Internet-connected economy is, and how anyone with a good cyber-security technology or service can tap into a global market. Governor Terry McAuliffe is right about this: Cyber-security is one of the biggest economic-development opportunities to come along in Virginia in a long time.

UVa’s Invisible Research Subsidies

David S. Wilkes, dean of the UVa schools of medicine

The Trump administration’s proposed budget cuts to the National Institutes of Health will make it harder to find new cures — and harder to create new jobs, contends David S. Wilkes, dean of the University of Virginia’s School of Medicine. In 2016 UVa received $126 million in NIH funding, accounting for about 60% of its research funding.

NIH backing allowed UVa researchers to discover a link between the brain and immune system, potentially leading to treatments of neurological diseases such as autism and Alzheimer’s. An NIH-supported clinical trial is providing the final tests for a UVa-developed artificial pancreas that can help people with Type 1 diabetes. Meanwhile, scientific research at UVa is stimulating the rise of a job-creating innovation ecosystem in the Charlottesville area. Writing in the Richmond Times-Dispatch op-ed page, Wilkes says:

In 2016, the National Venture Capital Association ranked Charlottesville as the fastest-growing venture capital ecosystem in the U.S., and medical start-ups are [an] important part of that boom.

U.Va. Innovation, which helps bring U.Va. research discoveries to the marketplace, has identified more than 50 active companies advancing U.Va. discoveries. Many of those companies were founded to develop U.Va. medical research breakthroughs.

A study conducted by the research firm Tripp Umbach found that in fiscal year 2015, U.Va. School of Medicine’s research generated an economic impact to Virginia of $425.4 million. That economic impact would be greatly diminished if NIH funding were slashed.

Bacon’s bottom line: One can pick at these numbers, but let us accept them as valid for the moment. Wilkes is making the argument that what’s good for UVa research is good for Virginia economic development. Advocates of investing in life sciences are employing similar logic for life-science initiatives in Northern Virginia, Richmond, Norfolk and Roanoke.

UVa is playing a hyper-competitive industry sector, however, and it starts with big competitive disadvantages as it tries to build a biomedical ecosystem from scratch in a small metropolitan area. According to the 2016 Jones Lang Lasalle study, the Boston, San Francisco, Raleigh-Durham and San Diego metropolitan areas have the nation’s leading life-sciences clusters. None of the top 16 clusters are located in Virginia. The closest geographically is the “Maryland suburbs/D.C. metro.” It takes a lot more than a research university to play in this sandbox. A large labor pool is a necessity for recruiting top scientific and entrepreneurial talent, and UVa’s location in little Charlottesville presents a big handicap.

If UVa were investing only its endowment dollars in competing for NIH grants and other life-science research, that would be UVa’s business and nobody else’s. As long as the money for this initiative comes exclusively from wealthy alumni and philanthropists, and as long as Virginia taxpayers, tuition-paying families, and bill-paying patients of UVa’s medical system are held harmless, no one has grounds for complaint.

Unfortunately, UVa isn’t relying solely upon wealthy donors to fund its ambitions to build a world-class medical research center. UVa has developed mechanisms to extract wealth from others — patients, students, taxpayers — to underwrite its efforts. Because these mechanisms are so opaque, however, no one in Virginia sees them.

Wilkes does mention one of these funding sources, UVa’s controversial, $2.1 billion Strategic Investment Fund, in a positive light. The fund was cobbled together from various pots of money which were generating minimal investment returns. By combining these pools of money and handing them over to the University of Virginia Investment Management Company, the university hopes to generate an estimated $100 million a year in investment revenue. The Board of Visitors has approved using most of this money for institutional advancement, including R&D. But that is a choice. Alternatives include using the money to reduce tuition, bolster financial aid, or build non-research programs. Accordingly, students and parents who pay tuition, and the Commonwealth of Virginia, which pays millions of dollars in state support, have a direct interest in how Strategic Investment Fund proceeds are allocated.

According to the National Science Foundation, a third of UVa’s R&D expenditures are internally generated (classified as “institution funds” in the table to the left). Institution funds amounted to $74.8 million for life sciences and $122.6 million for all R&D in 2015 — before the Strategic Investment Fund existed.

I could not find a definition of “institution funds” on the NSF website, but I expect that it includes monies flowing from one or all of the following: (1) the university’s endowment, which is funded by philanthropy; (2) discretionary academic monies, which are funded through tuition and state support; and/or (3) surplus revenues (profits) from the UVa Medical Center, which is derived from patient revenues. To the extent that UVa research is funded by tuition, tax dollars, and patient revenues to cover buildings, faculty, grad students administrative overheard, and the like, it is fair to say that students, taxpayers, and patients are subsidizing research. The size of that subsidy remains a mystery. I don’t believe UVa (or any other Virginia public university) publishes such a number. It may not even calculate a number.

While R&D-generated economic development might be a good thing for Charlottesville and Virginia from the perspective of creating high-paying research and technology jobs, much of the funding ultimately comes from populations who have no idea what they’re subsidizing. Students are paying higher tuition (and accumulating more debt) and patients are paying more for medical services. The system is so opaque, the accounting so arcane, that no one sees or understands these wealth transfers. Perhaps the economic development is worth the cost of higher tuition and patient fees, but who can say unless we have an open and honest conversation?

Virginia Tech OK’s Intelligent Infrastructure Initiative

Bringing intelligent infrastructure to Virginia

Bringing intelligent infrastructure to Virginia

The Virginia Tech Board of Visitors voted Monday to approve a $78 million plan to make the university a leader in “intelligent infrastructure.” The term encompasses everything from self-driving cars and drones to smart construction and energy systems — areas, in the words of President Tim Sands, that are “related to energy systems for the cities of the future and the way that people move in and around those cities.”

“We set … aggressive philanthropy and industry targets and were able to meet them quickly,” Sands said. “It was ready. … We already had industry and philanthropy champing at the bit.”

Intelligent Infrastructure is a fascinating field of endeavor, and one that is well suited to Virginia Tech’s engineering strengths. Further, the concept, while hardly original to Tech, has yet to become a trendy buzzword that every university in America is chasing, so Tech may have an opportunity to establish a leadership position in the field.

As an economic development initiative that stimulates the growth of R&D and, potentially, the spin-off of new technologies and business enterprises, intelligent infrastructure is an exciting idea. There is a double benefit for Virginia if the initiative helps state and local governments in the Old Dominion devise solutions to chronic problems such as traffic congestion and aging, ill-maintained infrastructure. Strategically, the initiative makes sense.

In other action, the board also approved a 3.5% hike for in-state tuition & fees in the next academic year, bringing the full-year cost to $13,329. That increase exceeds the 2% increase in Virginia’s median household income (2015-2016 numbers) by a hefty margin, but Tech remains a relative bargain compared to other Virginia’s other public, four-year institutions.

Here’s my question: Where does the $75 million come from to finance this significant new initiative? Tech officials say the money comes from corporate sponsorships, philanthropy and other sources but not from tuition & fees. In political terms, Tech is claiming that the project is not being financed on the backs of students and their families.

Here’s what the Roanoke Times has to say:

The … funding will come from non-general funds, which comes from revenue streams other than tuition and mandatory fees.

University officials previously vowed to put about $75 million into the intelligent infrastructure destination area. Millions in private dollars were in the plans since last year, and now Tech has $25 million. The donors include John Lawson, president and CEO of W.M. Jordan Co., and a former board of visitors rector; the charitable foundation controlled by the Hitt family of HITT Contracting Inc., in Washington, D.C.; and two other donors who Virginia Tech declined to name.

A briefing report included in the board briefing materials provides a few more details (my bold face):

At this time, the university is requesting to move forward with a $6 million planning authorization for the $69.5 million of outstanding capital projects and capital lease components. The planning authorization will cover establishing a scope, schedule, delivery method, and complete design documents for each capital component. As with all self-supporting projects, the university has developed a financing plan to provide assurance regarding the financial feasibility of this planning project. The funding plan calls for the use of private gifts, overhead funds, revenues derived from the Dining Services auxiliary, and future external support.

If Tech can make the Smart Infrastructure initiative essentially self-funding, then it would seem to be a win-win all around and a model for Virginia’s other research universities.

Two sets of questions, though. First, how much of the project will be paid through “overhead funds?” What overhead are we talking about? Who’s paying for that overhead now? Does that amount to an indirect subsidy?

Second, how certain are we that “future external support” will materialize, and how contingent is the Intelligent Infrastructure initiative upon obtaining that support? Is there any chance that Tech will spent $70 million+ on the project and the external support might not appear? If so, who gets left holding the bag? In other words, who bears the risk?

Bacon’s Rebellion…. asking the questions no one else will ask.

Update: “Overhead funds” come from sponsored research. “When an outside organization sponsors faculty research (e.g. NIH, General Motors, DOD, etc.) the university collects an overhead fee, in addition to the actual costs associated with the research (such as salaries or equipment costs),” says Larry Hincker, retired associate vice president for university relations. “This is a good example of how sponsored research leverages new activities without using any state funds.”

Fostering the TNC Revolution

Starship robot: Now legal in Virginia.

It’s always refreshing when Republicans and Democrats in the General Assembly play well together. We don’t hear about such instances very often — reporters are drawn to conflict — but I suspect they occur more frequently than we hear about.

An illuminating instance is how legislators from the two parties collaborated to create what Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, calls a “comprehensive legal framework” for Transportation Network Companies (or TNCs) popularized by Uber and Lyft.

Writing in Sunday’s Richmond Times-Dispatch, McClellan detailed several bills enacted in the 2017 session with bipartisan input. If signed by the governor, the legislation will accomplish the following:

  • Lower up-front fees. TNCs will have a new option for applying for certificates. Instead of paying the existing up-front fee of $100,000 upon application, businesses can pay a $20 surcharge per record when purchasing driver transcripts. This measure will make it easier for smaller, less capitalized companies.
  • Less red tape for drivers. A requirement will be removed for TNC drivers to register personal vehicles for use as a TNC partner vehicle. State Police can recognize another state’s annual motor vehicle safety inspection in lieu of Virginia’s.
  • Brokering rides. Third-party companies will be allowed to broker TNC rides. This measure responds to a request by Richmond-area startup, UZURV, which piggybacks on Uber and Lyft by allowing passengers to reserve rides with specific drivers.
  • Robot deliveries. London-based Starship Technologies wants to make deliveries in cooler-sized robots, which can travel up to four miles (round trip) and can navigate sidewalks, shared-use paths and crosswalk. These “Electronic Personal Delivery Devices” will become legal.
  • Less red tape for property carriers. Some requirements regarding property carriers and bulk property carriers will be eliminated.

The TNC revolution will prove a fertile field for innovation, and the more Virginia does to loosen regulatory restrictions (within the bounds of protecting public safety and creating a level playing field), the more innovation we will see. Companies like Starship will set up shop in Virginia before investing in states where their service is illegal. Entrepreneurs like UZURV will spring up to build on the Uber revolution. And Virginia consumers will benefit from options they never imagined having before.

Now, if the legislature can just figure out what to do with AirBnB…

George Mason Achieves R1 Research Classification

Frank Krueger (left) is co-director of the Center for the Study of Neuro-economics. Photo credit: George Mason University.

George Mason University has received the coveted “R1” status bequeathed by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education. Only 115 institutions across the country earn the “highest research activity” designation.

States the cover story of the winter edition of Mason Spirit magazine:

About 20 years ago, Mason thoughtfully began building a research portfolio that ranged from public policy to the physical sciences. Mason’s total research expenditures were nearly $27 million in 1995, increasing to about $65 million in 2005, and jumping to $101 million in 2016. The university is setting its sights high and aiming or $250 million by 2025.

Bacon’s bottom line: From an economic development perspective, Mason’s climb to R1 status is a strong positive. Northern Virginia needs a strong research university to bolster the region’s biomedical and IT sectors.

From an undergraduate student perspective, however, the R&D emphasis is a mixed blessing. Stronger research programs create opportunities for some undergrads. GMU’s engineering program, for instance, has built extensive partnerships with Northern Virginia industry that makes summer internships more readily available. But boosting research is expensive — lab facilities and star faculty don’t come cheap. Building research programs puts pressure on university administrations to increase tuition. Between the 2006-07 school year and the 2015-16 school year, the cost of in-state attendance at GMU increased 57%, more than the 53% average for all of Virginia’s public, four-year schools.

The trade-offs are complicated. Which delivers more value to Virginians — economic development opportunities stemming from R&D or from lower barriers to attendance for undergraduate students? You won’t find those questions highlighted in the glossy, university magazines.

Who Needs Amazon Drones When You’ve Got a Starship Robot?

The Starship robot moves at pedestrian speed and weighs no more than 40 pounds, fully loaded.

The Starship robot moves at pedestrian speed and weighs no more than 40 pounds, fully loaded. The company claims the devices are “inherently safe and can navigate around objects and people.”

A robot developed by Starship Technologies, of London, can make deliveries in urban environments. Capable of carrying loads as large as two grocery bags, this “personal courier” can make deliveries of groceries, wine, flowers, whatever, within a three-mile radius. Customers can track the robot’s location location on a smart phone.

“Our delivery platform will launch a new era of instant, unscheduled delivery as well as significantly lower the costs of shipments,” says the Starship website.

Legislation allowing the use of Electric Personal Delivery Devices (EPPDs) in Virginia unanimously passed the state Senate today.  The bill marks the first statewide approval of EPDDs operating on sidewalks, shared-use paths, and crosswalks in the United States, according to a press release issued by the office of Sen. Bill DeSteph, R-Virginia Beach, who patroned the bill. A companion bill has been introduced in the House of Delegates.

“Starship Technologies is delighted with the passage of Senator DeSteph’s legislation from the Senate, and the team is excited about the opportunity to bring this technology to the Commonwealth of Virginia” said Allan Martinson, COO of Starship Technologies.  The bill was supported also by the Unmanned Systems Association of Virginia.

Governor Terry McAuliffe, U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, and other Virginia officials have targeted unmanned vehicles as an economic development opportunity for the state. Drones are regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration, which has held up their deployment for safety reasons, but the use of ground-borne robots on public roads and sidewalks are governed by the states. Virginia also is playing a leading role in the research of driverless cars.

Impact on human settlement patterns… The Starship robot could tilt consumer preferences for urban areas over suburban. As a practical matter, the device can travel only where there are sidewalks and where development is compact. As much as I would love to order my Kroger groceries online (which I now can do) and have them delivered by a robot, there is no sidewalk in suburban Henrico County the device could travel to reach me. The street network and relatively high density of the City of Richmond would be far more suitable. In the grand scheme of things, delivery-by-robot is a small amenity. Still, it is one more reason to move from the ‘burbs into the city.

Transportation Revolution Ain’t Slowing Down

Don Perrone epitomizes the transportation revolution. Project manager at Crozet-based Perrone Robotics, he displays the innards of his self-driving car.

Don Perrone epitomizes the transportation revolution. Project manager at Crozet-based Perrone Robotics, he  displays the innards of his self-driving car. Photo credit: Daily Progress.

Just a reminder of how rapidly technology is transforming automobiles and transportation, I submit two stories published yesterday….

From the Daily Progress: Perrone Robotics, a Crozet-based software company, is testing automated and fully autonomous vehicles on Virginia roads. Although driverless cars in Virginia must be manned, the laws regulating autonomous driving are more accommodating here than in many other states. “It’s pretty much an open playing field,” said Greg Scharer, Perrone’s chief operating officer “Virginia has a ‘tabula rasa’ on [automated vehicle] legislation.”

California may be dominating the transportation revolution, but Virginia is a player. Virginia Tech runs one of the nation’s leading transportation research centers in Blacksburg. And in 2015 Gov. Terry McAuliffe announced the opening of the Virginia Automated Corridors, a 70-mile network of highways and arterial roads in Northern Virginia outfitted with high-definition mapping and data acquisition systems to support automated-vehicle testing. Those assets, with a friendly legal climate, makes Virginia an attractive location for research on autonomous vehicles.

Meanwhile, an MIT study hints at what carpooling options created by companies like Uber and Lyft, can accomplish. Smart phones and algorithms can accomplish amazing things. Says lead author Daniela Rus:

Instead of transporting people one at a time, drivers could transport two to four people at once, resulting in fewer trips, in less time, to make the same amount of money. A system like this could allow drivers to work shorter shifts, while also creating less traffic, cleaner air, and shorter, less stressful commutes.

The MIT team found that 95 percent of demand would be covered by some 2,000 10-person vehicles, compared to the nearly 14,000 taxis that currently operate in New York City. The algorithm works in real-time to reroute cars based on incoming requests and can dispatch idle cars to areas with high demand, says the MIT article.

Virginia doesn’t have any localities with the population density of New York. But cut the ride-sharing trips in half or two-thirds and you still have a remarkable reduction in the number of vehicles on the road. It makes no sense to spend multi-billions on new highways and transit projects when this potential lies within our grasp.

Forget Globalization. Worry about Automation.

Automation is taking more American jobs than Mexicans are.

Automation is destroying more American jobs than Mexicans are.

Watcha gonna do… watcha gonna do… whatcha gonna do when robots come for you?

Robots aren’t science fiction. You need to start thinking about them — and so does Virginia’s political establishment.

The 2015 Oxford automation study, “The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs to Computerisation,” concluded that 47% of all U.S. jobs in 702 occupations are at “high risk” of decimation by automation. If it’s any consolation, an Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) study found that a mere 9% of jobs are at risk. But don’t get complacent. A 2016 McKinsey study predicts that 60% of all U.S. occupations could see 30% or more of their work activities automated.

Using the same methodology as the Oxford study, Dr. James V. Koch, an Old Dominion University economist, calculates that nearly 1.9 million jobs are at risk in Virginia — about 51% of all jobs, four percentage points higher than the national average.

Seeking refuge in a college education will not necessarily save your job from robots or artificial intelligence. A hair stylist in Harrisonburg stands better chance of surviving the job carnage wrought by our robot overlords than, say, a tax preparer in Danville.

The deciding factor, says Koch in an essay in the “2016 State of the Commonwealth Report,” sponsored by the Virginia Chamber Foundation, “is the extent to which jobs require creative and and social intelligence and the ability to manipulate as opposed to being dominated by repetitive, routine tasks capable of being learned by machines fueled by artificial intelligence.”

So, in the immortal words of 19th-century Russian revolutionary Nikolai Chernyshevsky, “What is to be done?”

Writes Koch:

Wise public policies in this arena should focus on “riding the wave” of technological change rather than encouraging resistance movements that are destined to prove futile. Astutely constructed public-private partnerships between governments and firms have the potential to develop programs designed to compensate and redirect job losers, who in many cases are relatively innocent victims of dynamic economic forces beyond their control.

Koch, a former Old Dominion University president, argues the state should work to increase the skills, flexibility and mobility of the workforce. By skills, he means proficiencies that count in the marketplace. “This is not the same thing as generating massive numbers of additional bachelor’s degree holders, or STEM-degree holders,” he says. “There is relatively little rigorous economic evidence available that a significant shortage of job candidates exists in STEM-related occupations.”

By flexibility, Koch means “suppleness in thinking and approach” — critical thinking. And by mobility, “wise public policy will reduce barriers that discourage people from moving geographically and/or telecommuting to jobs that may be located thousands of miles away.”

What the empirical evidence tells us, says Koch, “is that the current range of public policies is insufficient to deal with the occupational ferment that Frey and Osborne (the authors of the Oxford study) have identified. We are forewarned.”

UVa, Inova Partner in Research Initiative

Inova CEO Knox Singleton and UVa President Teresa Sullivan sign partnership deal. Photo credit: Washington Business Journal

Inova CEO Knox Singleton and UVa President Teresa Sullivan sign partnership deal. Photo credit: Washington Business Journal

by James A. Bacon

The University of Virginia and Inova Health System have joined forces in a $112 million partnership to launch a medical campus and a biomedical research initiative in Fairfax County. The partnership has three main components:

  • A cancer research partnership between the Inova Schar Cancer Institute and UVa. Cancer Center. The aspiration is to achieve designation by the National Cancer Institute as a Comprehensive Cancer Center, which would enhance the center’s prestige and open new avenues for research funding.
  • A regional campus of the U.Va. School of Medicine, which will enable UVa. medical students to complete clerkships and post-clerkship education at Inova hospitals in Northern Virginia.
  • A research partnership to develop the Global Genomics and Bioinformatics Research Center at The Inova Center for Personalized Health.

As part of the expanded relationship, UVa’s Darden School of Business will lead a business accelerator to speed the commercialization of medical research and the incubation of companies with innovative products.

Most of the activities will take place at the Inova Center for Personalized Health on the former Exxon Mobil campus located near Inova Fairfax Hospital, Inova’s flagship hospital.

“U.Va. is one of the most prestigious research universities in the country, and Inova is one of the largest, most successful health-care systems,” Knox Singleton, CEO, Inova Health System, said in a prepared statement. “This partnership leverages the complementary strengths of two institutions committed to providing the most advanced treatments and prevention strategies to the communities we serve.”

Twenty-eight million in funding will come from the Commonwealth of Virginia. Inova will raise another $56 million, and UVa will chip in $28 million. Dr. Richard Shannon, executive vice president for health affairs at UVa, told the Daily Progress that he did not know where UVa’s share will come from, although one possible source is the university’s new Strategic Investment Fund, which is expected to throw off about $100 million annually.

Meanwhile, in western Virginia… Virginia Tech plans to absorb the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine in Roanoke within the next two years, according to Virginia Business. “Our school is a research-intensive medical school and to be able to identify that research you have to be part of the university. That was one of the drivers,” says Nancy Howell Agee, Carilion Clinic’s president and CEO.

Bacon’s bottom line: I am ambivalent about these developments. On the positive side, the UVa-Inova and Tech-Carilion partnerships could create the critical mass it takes to break into the biomedical big leagues. Both are targeting emerging fields of medicine in which they don’t have to compete against entrenched biomedical powerhouses. The potential exists to create important new drivers of economic growth in Northern Virginia and the Roanoke-Blacksburg regions, giving new impetus to Virginia’s lethargic economy.

Whether these partnerships can construct the research-clinical-entrepreneurial ecosystems it takes to be successful remains to be seen. Northern Virginia has a respectable (though modest by Silicon Valley standards) angel financing/venture capital sector which should be capable of supporting the commercialization of new technologies. Proximity to the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., is a bonus for snagging research dollars. The Roanoke-Blacksburg area, which lacks these advantages, is more problematic.

What concerns me is how these initiatives are arising from large, lumbering not-for-profit organizations — health systems and universities — that are raising their capital not from capital markets, where their deals will be subjected to close scrutiny by investors, but from their own internal resources.

Unlike private enterprises, universities and hospitals don’t pay income taxes and they don’t pay dividends. Not-for-profit hospitals extract “surplus” revenues (what for-profit enterprises would call profit) by charging patients more than they need to. Universities extract wealth by over-charging students. In other words, it can be argued that that Inova, Carilion, UVa and Virginia Tech are building their research empires on the backs of patients and students with little accountability to the public. Hospital and university boards, far from representing the interests of patients and students, are rah-rah cheerleaders for institutional growth.

Business communities and the political establishment are cheering these initiatives as well. The lack of public debate is appalling.