Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday evening vowed to continue to direct public funds toward attracting and retaining researchers at Texas’ higher education institutions, highlighting these grants as major keys to recruiting top talent from other states.
Abbott participated in an animated 45 minute conversation deep below Old Parkland in the Debate chamber in front of an audience of about 100, which included former U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, former state Rep. and onetime Attorney General hopeful Dan Branch, and UT Southwestern President Daniel K. Podolsky, among others. Abbott spent the day visiting the new Raytheon headquarters in Richardson, where he says he was briefed on the company’s latest efforts to improve cyber security. He then headed south to UT Southwestern, where he learned about the Peter O’Donnell Jr. Brain Institute, meeting with National Academy of Sciences member Dr. Steven McKnight and other higher ups to discuss research pertaining to degenerative brain diseases like Alzheimer’s.
“When you look at the reality that people are living longer, that’s one of the reasons we are encountering Alzheimer’s more frequently than we have in the past. That will continue,” Abbott said. “The changes that we are seeing take place in medicine are going to lengthen the life of virtually everybody.”
At about 6 p.m., the governor sat for a conversation moderated by Southwestern Medical Foundation chairman Robert Rowling, who focused the chat on Abbott’s efforts to boost the state’s research infrastructure. The governor highlighted his drive to “re-categorize” Texas to be known more for its life sciences than its oil and gas production, noting his particularly aggressive use of state funds to court scientists from states like California and New York.
He spoke of being frustrated that the University of Texas at Austin was frequently rated similarly to the University of California, Santa Barbara and UC San Diego. And one way to leap above those institutions is by outspending the states where they’re located. From 2011 to 2015, Texas offered close to $40 million in research grants to New York scientists. The state has used its money to dip into talent in Michigan, California, and Massachusetts.
Locally, Sean Morrison, whom D CEO featured in 2014, landed a $10 million grant to bring his cancer research to the Lone Star State. Those were largely offered under former Gov. Rick Perry’s watch, but Abbott’s Texas has continued the trend and put more responsibility in the governor’s hand. Legislators in the last session fulfilled Abbott’s higher education priority by eliminating Perry’s Emerging Technology Fund and transitioning much of that money to a $40 million pool known as the Governor’s University Research Initiative.
Last year, a $6 million grant provided by the state’s cancer research arm, the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, is one of the reasons the distinguished scientist Thomas Yankeelov became one of the standout faculty members of Austin’s forthcoming Dell Medical School.
“I’ve contacted these researchers who are connected with some other university right now and they’re thinking about going to Stanford, going to Princeton, going to Harvard. But after seeing what Texas has to offer, after seeing the commitment of a governor who is going to connect with and ask these professors and researchers to bring their projects to the state of Texas, they’ve said Texas is the place for us,” Abbott said. “We are well on our way to building the intellectual capital that will elevate the next few generations of this world, with Texas once again leading the way.”
But state funding, Abbott argued, was not enough. It works in concert with philanthropic gifts—“Only in Dallas do you see the level of philanthropy where the Old Parkland is nicer than the new Parkland,” Abbott joked—that help fund the institutes where these researchers practice. Rowling, of course, pointed to UT Southwestern: The O’Donnell Brain Institute was subsidized by a $36 million gift from the O’Donnell Foundation. The William P. Clements Jr. University Hospital was paid for in part by an unencumbered $100 million gift left by the late governor.
“When you have this synergistic effect of the brightest minds working with private sector and philanthropic dollars, combined with the push and assistance and work from the public sector, both from the state of Texas as well as our public institutions, it really moves the dial in a way that’s unparalleled,” Abbott said. “It’s going to be fabulous for the city of Dallas, but it will truly put Texas at the apex of the entire world.”