West Virginia Makes Case for New Research Center

West Virginia Makes Case for New Research Center

By Steve LeSueur, Staff Writer

West Virginia officials are optimistic that a 4-year-old FBI identification center in Clarksburg will help the state secure federal funds to create a research center for identification technologies.

The center would be located at West Virginia University, in Morgantown, under a cooperative industry and university program administered by the National Science Foundation. The NSF budget for fiscal 2000 provides $5 million in planned funding for 55 such cooperative research centers.

Last month, West Virginia Gov. Cecil Underwood pledged $80,000 in seed money and announced formation of a special committee to help establish the center.

Laurance Milov, chairman of West Virginia's Science and Technology Advisory Council and head of the newly formed committee to secure the center, said his group has begun lining up support from industry and the NSF. Plans call for a formal grant proposal to be submitted to the NSF in June, leading to an award in the first quarter of 2000, he said.

To receive an NSF grant, the proposed West Virginia center must obtain at least $300,000 annually from a minimum of six industry and university partners, and demonstrate a comprehensive range of disciplines and skills to address research issues of interest to industry. The NSF provides up to $100,000 annually for five years to qualified centers, which can reapply for up to $50,000 a year for another five years.

In announcing the seed money, Underwood noted that emerging technologies such as biometric identification systems will be critical to law enforcement and industries in the future. West Virginia "is uniquely positioned to be a world leader in that technology," he said.

Several businesses, including Lockheed Martin Corp., have expressed interest in participating in the center along with Marshall University in Huntington and West Virginia University, state officials said. West Virginia University has a newly approved program in forensic identification with biometric systems while Marshall offers a master's degree in forensic science.

Identification technologies have applications across a variety of disciplines and activities. People generally use a personal identification number, or PIN, to identify themselves on their computers or at ATM machines. Biometric identification systems measure unique signatures of the human body, such as fingerprints, DNA, hands, and voice, and are commonly used to identify criminals. But biometric signatures also can have wide applications to electronic commerce, computer access and security, and preventing fraud in government programs such as welfare and health services.

In addition to supporting research into biometric technologies, the research center would try to develop common standards and examine the legal and social implications of adopting these technologies for everyday use, Milov said.

In late 1996, state officials began taking steps to make West Virginia a hub of identification technology research. Then-Gov. Gaston Caperton provided a start-up grant to the West Virginia High Technology Consortium Foundation to develop a center that could support research and conferences, and promote partnerships between academia and industry.

The foundation, which supports research and provides assistance to its business membership, subsequently organized a National Center for Identification Technology but state officials recognized that they needed NSF sponsorship to achieve their goal of attracting the best minds and resources.

"An NSF Industry/University Cooperative Research Center is similar to the good housekeeping seal of approval for research and enhances the image of the university," said Kate Hofherr, senior public affairs specialist for the NSF in Arlington, Va. It also provides "an important leveraging mechanism and the opportunity to work with industry and gain their support," she said.

Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., was criticized nationally in the early 1990s for using his perch as chairman of the Appropriations Committee to get the FBI center and other federal facilities built in his home state. But state and industry officials contend that these facilities have helped spur a thriving technology industry along Interstate 79, which runs through Clarksburg and Morgantown.

Completed in 1995, the FBI facility already has had a dramatic impact on the region's economy, according to a study by the West Virginia High Technology Consortium Foundation in Fairmont. Major activities of the FBI's criminal justice information services division, which is housed at the facility, include a fingerprint repository and the National Crime Information Center.

The FBI facility generated $242.5 million in direct and indirect business in 1997 and $162 million in 1996, according to a December study by the consortium foundation, a non-profit industry organization.

"The FBI is a huge anchor that draws business to this region," said Neil Forehand, director of business development for Lockheed Martin Information Systems, which is building an automated fingerprint identification system for the FBI's Clarksburg facility.

Known as the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System and slated for full operation in July, it will have the capability to rapidly and accurately search an international database of more than 400 million criminal fingerprints.

Lockheed Martin is integrating its identification system with key components from Litton-PRC Inc., McLean, Va., and Science Applications International Corp., San Diego. These companies, which have multiyear contracts with a combined total of nearly $400 million, have brought local firms onto their projects as subcontractors.

"Bringing the FBI facility to West Virginia was part of a vision to change the economics of the state," said Forehand, who serves on a planning committee for the proposed NSF research center. "It gives small IT businesses incentives to start up and grow."

More than 170 technology and technology-related companies now operate in the state's I-79 corridor, according to Milov, who also serves as president of the West Virginia High Technology Consortium Foundation.

"The universities' participation and interaction with business is critical to stimulating the world's best products and services in identification technology," said Milov.

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