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Danforth Center aims to increase influence, fundraising through coalition

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 30, 2011 - The Danforth Plant Science Center, already a biotech powerhouse, has decided to find strength in numbers by becoming a founding member of the Association of Independent Plant Research Institutes.

After roughly two years of planning, the initiative links Danforth Center with three similar facilities around the nation to increase communication, win grants and bolster the organizations' collective voice in setting the legislative agenda on the national level. In the end, the hope is to boost the growing field of plant sciences and increase the flow of research dollars. The center announced the collaboration in a news release issued Tuesday.

"AIPI is going to provide new opportunities in a very competitive grant atmosphere that exists today," said Jan Jaworski a principal investigator with the Danforth Center. "These are the kinds of things that really give scientists at the Danforth Center yet another competitive edge."

The Danforth Center's partner institutions are the Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research at Cornell University, the Carnegie Institution for Science at Stanford University and the Ardmore, Okla.-based Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation. Together, they employ 400 people and manage 60 laboratories. The institutions are the four largest of their type in the nation.

Jaworski, a 10-year veteran of the center who recently served as its vice president of research before becoming a principal investigator, played a substantial role in the group's birth. But he said the real credit belongs to the Danforth Center's founding president, Roger Beachy.

"His original idea was to give the four institutions more influence in conversations in Washington D.C.," Jaworski said. "That was the genesis of it but as we talked we began to realize there was much more that could happen."

It's hoped those increased possibilities will lead to more funds in the form of grants attracted by the coalition's efforts.

"We're about doing research but in the process of doing that research, we really do strengthen the St. Louis area in a very direct way," he said.

St. Louis has been put on the plant-science map relatively recently and the Danforth Center, established in 1998 with land donated from the neighboring Monsanto Company, is far newer than its partners, which were all founded in the first half of the 20th century. Jaworski said St. Louis' prominence in the field has risen quickly, however. The center has worked to leverage some of that growth through initiatives such as the Bio-Research and Development Growth Park (BRDG), which helps translate research into commercial possibilities by incubating startups and attracting cutting-edge enterprises to the area.

"The Danforth Center has become remarkably well-known in a very short period of time," he said. "The technology that's here in St. Louis for plant sciences is competitive with virtually any place in the world."

Jaworski said the area's near-term job growth from the effort would likely be minimal, but he was optimistic that it could spur development over the longer haul.

Companies, he noted, don't just go where expenses are the cheapest, but also where they have access to solid resources and good people.

"When you give scientists the opportunity to expand their research efforts, that inevitably is going to be a boost to St. Louis," he said. "I think there's a ripple effect here. As St. Louis becomes more known for the plant sciences as a center of excellence -- I believe we are there or we are rapidly getting there -- then that gives small companies an incentive to come here. That, of course, is what BRDG Park is all about."

Though the process took two years, Jaworski said it was remarkably smooth once the researchers appeared to be on board.

"At that point, it becomes very easy," he said. "If the scientists want to go forward, people like myself would be foolish not to promote this kind of activity."

The other participants are equally enthusiastic.

"Each of these institutions possesses skilled and dedicated researchers," said David Stern, president of Boyce Thomson Institute in a news release issued announcing the joint effort. "Together, we will be even better. AIPI is a tool to allow our collective resources to respond faster to opportunities in an organized and collaborative manner."

Wolf B. Frommer, director of the Department of Plant Biology at the Carnegie Institution for Science noted the importance of the research.

"With the challenges facing humanity in the next few generations," he said in the statement, "this research is critical to maintaining a supply of nutritious food, fiber and energy, in a manner that does not degrade the environment."

"Plants and the many roles they play in our world are often taken for granted," said Richard Dixon, senior vice president at the Noble Foundation in the release. "But as global populations increase from 7 billion to 9 billion people in the next few decades, and water and land resources decrease, we are going to ask more and more from plants to provide food, fuel and fiber."

AIPI has already confirmed its initial areas of focus, which will include research on plants as sources of renewable energy, improvement of plant abilities in such areas as groundwater filtration, oxygen generation and erosion reduction, as well as the continued development of sustainable agricultural practices.

Over the longer term, Jaworski said he hopes AIPI will take advantage of the added capacity for collaborative efforts, but the organization's future remains unwritten.

David Baugher is a freelance writer. 

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