Colwell likely to get federal science post Clinton expected to tap Md. official for national foundation

A career-capper

Agency subsidizes research in physics, biological studies

January 07, 1998|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN NATIONAL STAFF Sun staff writer Douglas M. Birch contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- Rita R. Colwell, the head of Maryland's biotechnology research center, is expected to be tapped by President Clinton to become one of the nation's highest-ranking science officials, state officials say.

Colwell has told associates that she will be named deputy director of the National Science Foundation, a federal agency that subsidizes research in physics and biological sciences.

A White House official confirmed last night that Colwell's appointment is "expected to happen."

The position would be a career-capper for Colwell, a 63-year-old researcher and administrator who has sought a higher profile in academic and scientific circles. Colwell, the president of the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute, was traveling in Norway yesterday and could not be reached for comment.

"It's fairly widely expected that she will be nominated as deputy director of the NSF," said Donald N. Langenberg, who is Colwell's boss as chancellor of the University System of Maryland and a previous holder of the federal post to which Colwell is likely to be named. "They've been after her for more than a year."

In 1980, Langenberg was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to be the science foundation's deputy director, a job he held through 1982.

The deputy director's job has been vacant since the fall of 1996, when Anne C. Petersen left after two years to join the Kellogg Foundation in Battle Creek, Mich. The deputy director is the day-to-day manager of the foundation. The appointment would be contingent upon confirmation by the U.S. Senate.

During her career, Colwell, the state institute's founding president, has conducted research into how the cholera microbe lives in sea water, and how global climate change might trigger new epidemics. The institute studies the biological structure of marine life, as well as medical and agricultural issues, and works with researchers from the University of Maryland, the government and private industry to promote commercial applications of those findings.

Langenberg said it was not clear whether the institute's four components would be folded into the system's research campuses if Colwell leaves.

Among Colwell's most tangible accomplishments are her involvement in securing government funding for the construction the $160 million Columbus Center on Baltimore's Inner Harbor, which was intended to be an incubator for public-private research partnerships, and in persuading Dr. Robert C. Gallo, the renowned AIDS researcher, to end a 30-year career with the National Cancer Institute to start a research center on the University of Maryland's campus in Baltimore. The institute is the Columbus Center's chief tenant.

Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Baltimore Democrat, said Colwell's political skills would be missed at the research center.

"She's been the driving force for what's going on there," Cardin said. "She's convinced me that the future of our country very much depends on the impact on our waters."

Colwell's departure would be the second key departure of the young year for the state system. William E. Kirwan, president of the University of Maryland, College Park, will become president of Ohio State University this summer.

In recent years, Colwell has been a finalist for the presidencies of the University of Alabama at Birmingham and Oregon State University.

Starting in the summer of 1995, Colwell served a yearlong term as president, and a second year as chairwoman, of the board of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Her acceptance of those posts raised questions in Maryland's scientific community because they required much time and travel outside the state.

Colwell would have to accept a large pay cut to take the NSF job.

The science foundation post carries a salary of about $126,000. Her pay at the Maryland biotech institute is slightly more than $196,000.

The science foundation, based in Arlington, Va., has 1,400 employees. Unlike the National Institutes of Health, however, the NSF boasts no laboratories, and none of the research it sponsors conducted on the site. Rather, its research is carried out by scientists and engineers at 2,000 universities and research institutions across the country.

About one-fifth of the agency's grants are designed to spark public interest in science and engineering.

Some critics have questioned whether the state biotechnology center has lived up to its promise, saying that much of the institute's research might have occurred at the other University of Maryland campuses or the Johns Hopkins University.

In 1995, Colwell asserted that Maryland would soon surpass Massachusetts as a center for biotechnological research. That claim has yet to be achieved.

The biotechnology institute received $17 million from the state for the last academic year and nearly $15 million in federal grants. It has generated 21 patents since its inception in 1985. One company has been created as a direct result of research conducted at the institute, a spokeswoman said.

Pub Date: 1/07/98

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