The University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute will be disbanded and its institutes and programs will be distributed to universities around the state under a plan approved Friday by the University System of Maryland Board of Regents.
Chancellor William E. Kirwan said breaking up the collection of research centers could double the annual money generated by UMBI researchers (an average of about $25 million) within five years.
"Although UMBI has excellent facilities and has produced excellent science, the volume of research and the economic impact were not at the level originally hoped for," Kirwan said.
"We have these pockets of expertise on campuses and in centers and by bringing them together, we think the volume and potential economic impact of the research could be increased tremendously."
UMBI, created in 1985, was an unusual component of the university system because it was a collection of researchers rather than a centralized institution with thousands of students.
It housed many renowned scientists over the years, including pioneering AIDS researcher Robert Gallo. But it never became the focal point for a Maryland version of Silicon Valley as some had hoped.
Board members said that by shifting control of UMBI's components - two of which are in Baltimore - to other universities, they hope to cut administrative costs and to promote more collaboration between researchers in different fields.
"I think what we saw is that UMBI had a lot of strengths," board Chairman Clifford Kendall said. "But when we looked at the total system, a lot of other universities had strengths in similar areas and we saw that if we put them together, we'd have greater total strength. It's a matter of how you get the biggest bang for your buck."
A panel led by Kendall found that UMBI's research centers were too small and isolated to operate at peak efficiency. Though none of the centers will close under the new plan, they will all be aligned with larger universities. At those universities, Kirwan said, the centers will benefit from infusions of talented graduate students and from ramped up marketing of scientific discoveries.
UMBI was divided into four major centers, one each in Rockville and College Park, and two - the Columbus Center at the Inner Harbor and the Medical Biotechnology Center on the west side - in Baltimore.
Under the new structure, the Medical Biotechnology Center will officially become part of the University of Maryland, Baltimore, where it physically resided anyway.
The University of Maryland, Baltimore County will take over administrative control of the Columbus Center, which focuses on marine biotechnology. Researchers from UMB, the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science and the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore will also work at the center.
The University of Maryland, College Park will take over the Rockville facility and establish a joint research center with faculty from UMB.
College Park will also absorb the resources of the existing biosystems research center on its campus.
"We took things that had a natural affinity and placed them together," Kendall said.
State Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, who sat on the Board of Visitors at UMBI, said she's "OK" with the disbanding of the biotechnology institute and hopes state universities will have more luck in marketing the research produced by its faculty.
"The question is how do you turn 'smart' into product, and it's hard," she said.
According to its latest annual report, the institute brought in $23.8 million in competitive grants in fiscal 2008, down from $42 million the previous year.
The reorganization had been anticipated since March, when UMBI President Jennie C. Hunter-Cevera announced she would step down. Despite the coming dissolution, the regents will appoint an interim president, and the biotechnology institute's central administrators will keep their jobs through summer 2010. Kirwan said that about 30 positions could ultimately be eliminated and that the cost savings would be reinvested in research.
The regents pledged to honor tenure for all institute faculty members.
The board asked Kirwan to bring back a detailed plan for the restructuring by the end of the year.