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Meehan plans $80m science center

By From the Boston Globe

By Peter Schworm

In the first major move of chancellor Martin Meehan's tenure, the University of Massachusetts at Lowell announced plans yesterday for an $80 million science center to enhance the college's powerhouse nanotechnology research program.

The center will mark the first new academic facility on campus in more than 30 years. College officials say it will serve as the cornerstone for a broader campaign to expand and modernize the 112-year-old college.

"We need the very best facilities to meet the 21st-century needs of teaching, research, and service," Meehan said,in announcing the initiative. "We must have them if we are going to put Massachusetts in a position to compete and succeed both nationally and globally."

At a news conference at the Lowell campus, Meehan, a UMass-Lowell graduate who took over as chancellor in July after 15 years in Congress, also unveiled plans for two other academic buildings, a 500-space parking garage, and additional student housing that will allow half of the 8,500 undergraduates to live on campus, up from the current 25 percent.

The university plans to build the nanotechnology center with a combination of state, federal, and university money. Meehan said the center, slated to open in 2010, dovetails with Governor Deval Patrick's $1 billion biotechnology initiative, which seeks to keep Massachusetts at the forefront of scientific research.

In 2004, UMass-Lowell, in collaboration with Northeastern and the University of New Hampshire, received a $12.4 million grant from the National Science Foundation to establish a center for nanomanufacturing. The foundation funds 14 other nanotechnology centers nationwide, including those at UMass-Amherst, Harvard, and Northeastern University.

Nanotechnology is the use of microscopic particles between one to 100 nanometers large; a nanometer is one-billionth of a meter. The field is seen as holding great promise for research breakthroughs and economic growth.

Political leaders said the research facility will benefit the region's economy by spurring collaboration with high-tech and manufacturing firms.

"From the heyday of the textile mills to today, UMass-Lowell has helped drive the regional economy," state Senator Steven C. Panagiotakos of Lowell, chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, said in a statement. "This emerging technologies center, like a rock dropped into the Merrimack River, will generate waves of new technologies, new industries, and new jobs."

In a phone interview, Meehan said the center's research could "create entire new industries" and help carry ideas through to the production stage.

The state has designated $35 million for the new center, and Patrick's proposed higher education bond bill calls for spending $26 million for one new academic buildingat UMass-Lowell. The bill, which Patrick filed earlier this month, calls for the state to spend $2 billion over the next 10 years to replace outdated structures and build new research facilities at state universities.

Under that plan, UMass-Lowell would also receive $9 million for renovations to a plastics manufacturing center so it can encompassa medical device development center in collaboration with the UMass Medical School in Worcester.

The nanotechnology center will be located on what is now Smith Hall, a 110-bed dormitory built in 1948. A $15 million parking garage will be constructed adjacent to the new building. The site was chosen over four others on the recommendation of campus leaders, city officials, and neighbors.

Nanotechnology researchers praised the new center. "It's especially important for Massachusetts to have centers like that so it can achieve a critical mass in nanotechnology," said Greg Schmergel, chief executive of Nantero, a Woburn firm. "We have to make sure it grows and doesn't go off to other states, because it's a highly competitive area."

Because of the stiff competition, he said, it is "by no means assured that Massachusetts will become a hub of nanotechnology" without a concerted investment