With 90 percent of the funding secured, North Carolina State University is aiming for an Aug. 31, 2021 opening of its new $160.2 million Plant Science Research Complex on the Centennial Campus in Raleigh.
“The ribbon cutting will be on the last day of August 2021 and you’re all invited to attend,” said Steve Lommel, associate dean and director for the North Carolina Agricultural Research Service in N.C. State’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, at a listening session on the Plant Sciences Initiative Aug. 30 at the North Carolina Farm Bureau in Raleigh.
The meeting in Raleigh was one of four such listening sessions held across North Carolina last month to provide an update on the plant sciences initiative and to seek input from farmers and others on the kind of research and science the new center should prioritize.
Lommel said the architect for the 200,000 square foot facility will be selected Sept. 15 and the university’s machinery is gearing up to construct the building. The complex will be among the largest on the N.C. State campus and will include glass houses on the top, leasable space to tenants, an administrative suite and a large interdisciplinary space that will allow the center to do “big science,” Lommel noted.
Construction of the complex will be funded by an $85 million bond package approved by North Carolina voters earlier this year, a $45 million grant from the Golden LEAF Foundation and $9 million from 42 agricultural groups across the state. This represents 90 percent of the cost of building the complex and to fund the remaining 10 percent, the university was given approval for a self-liquidating loan, Lommel explained.
The complex will be large enough to house 60 faculty programs which will include a faculty member plus technicians, students and post-doctoral researchers, Lommel said. The goal is to train students and do science interdisciplinary which Lommel said is not that common in the plant sciences.
Lommel said Raleigh and N.C. State are ideal for such an initiative due to the close proximity of Research Triangle Park where three of the world’s five largest plant science-based biotechnology companies are located and more than 1,500 PhDs are employed. The large number of entrepreneurial and startup companies in the region is another boost for the center, he said.
In addition, Lommel said the great diversity of North Carolina agriculture makes the state ideal for the plant science center. North Carolina’s diversity in soil type and climate conditions is unique with a wide range of agricultural research conducted across the state.
“We are a specialty crop state. We’re going to leverage that. We have unique environmental and soil conditions that allows us to be a broad specialty crop state. We’re going to take advantage of that and create new markets and opportunities for additional specialty crops,” he said.
In the meantime, Richard Linton, dean of N.C. State’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, said research at the center will focus on abiotic stress, biotic stress, precision agriculture and the microbiome. Linton also stressed the importance of ongoing dialogue with both the agricultural and research communities and the public.
“We interviewed 170 people from around the world and more than 50 to 60 percent of those interviewed said research is important but maybe an even more important piece is proactive communication,” Linton said, pointing out that informing people about the science done at the complex is critical.
Richard Bonanno, Extension director and associate dean for N.C. State’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, said the Cooperative Extension Service will be a vital part of the plant sciences initiative.
“We will make sure that Extension is there and carries the research results out to the agriculture community where it can be used,” Bonnano said. “At the same time we have to make that communication stream works backwards and the problems that are out in the ag community are brought back to the pant sciences initiative. Extension is part of it to make sure communication goes both ways.”
Bonnano added that N.C. State is in the process of hiring faculty that will staff the Plant Sciences Center when completed. “People will be coming in now, this year, next year and the following year. They’re going to be here before the building is finished. This Plant Sciences Initiative is something that doesn’t just start when the building is finished. It’s starting to happen now, and the people that are going to populate that building are existing people.”