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Chemical Eye on Staging a Stimulus


March 04, 2009

At the risk of being labeled a "ham radio commentator", I want to return to the play metaphor that I used to interpret Barack Obama's Inaugural Address. That's because there's some serious "pork" in the economic recovery that he is trying to stage - and in some cases I'm all for it.

I'll have grounds
More relative than this - the play's the thing
Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the King.

While Hamlet was trying to catch a villainous uncle, my theatrics are intended to help catch a $115 million science building that is desperately needed by the students and faculty here at Middle Tennessee State University. MTSU will celebrate its centennial anniversary in 2011, and that would normally not leave enough time to design and build a 131,000 net-square-feet building that houses technology-enabled classrooms as well as modern teaching and research laboratories for biology and chemistry. But, as the stage was being set for the economic stimulus package, guess what? The building had already been completely designed! It has even been given final approval by the Fire Marshal for the State of Tennessee. It truly is "shovel ready". Construction would have begun this year if the curtains hadn't started to fall on the economy.

jpg Science Hall

Wiser-Patten Science Hall, outside and in. No matter what the décor, chemistry labs are always intellectually stimulating, and sometimes sensually so, but students need to be attracted inside to discover that.
Credit: P. J. MacDougall

This is where the stimulus plan enters the stage. With great thanks to MTSU alumnus and congressman Bart Gordon, Chair of the House Committee on Science and Technology, the new MTSU science building was written into the House version of the stimulus plan script. Alas, it didn't survive the earmark editing by the Senate, nor is it in the compromise plan that is likely to be signed into law by President Obama.

But there is a large amount of money allocated for the states to spend on construction and renovation of educational facilities, so there is still hope that a stack of blueprints will become gleaming reality on the MTSU campus as the stimulus plan plays itself out.

As the editing done by the Senate indicates, this hope is not universal. It isn't even state-wide. Some see this earmark as "pork", and are glad to see if written out of the stimulus script. I beg to differ, and would like to see the following prologue entered into the script.

The year is 1931, and the nation, including Tennessee, is in the depths of the Great Depression. But, with an eye on an ever more scientific future, the State of Tennessee appropriates $225,000 for the "erection and construction of a modern science building". That building is now called Wiser-Patten Science Hall, and it is still where we teach all of our freshman chemistry labs. The first impression of a chemistry and biology double-major, who has gone on to become a locally-based and internationally successful biotechnology entrepreneur, but was a freshman in 1966, was "Gee, what an old building!"

If it was "long in tooth" in 1966, how do you imagine young and bright Tennesseans react to their first chemistry lab in 2009? The building may be Roman neoclassical on the outside, but it is definitely Greek tragedy on the inside. And there used to be a hint of "Gone With The Wind".

jpg Science Hall

Wiser-Patten Science Hall, outside and in. No matter what the décor, chemistry labs are always intellectually stimulating, and sometimes sensually so, but students need to be attracted inside to discover that.
Credit: P. J. MacDougall

Until the late '60s, when the one and only renovation was done, Science Hall also housed the Department of Home Economics on the second floor. The décor in this part of the building still has hints of the formal dining space where proper etiquette was taught to young Southern ladies. I like to imagine the Department Head raising her nose curiously, and with a gorgeous Southern drawl interrupting her lesson with "I do declare, what is that dreadful odor coming up the stairwell from the chemistry labs? It smells like the Yankees are coming - again!"

Let us return to the presently impending action of the stimulus plan. We need to consider not just whether the spending will create jobs today, but whether it will still be creating jobs decades from now.

Building new roads and bridges will create jobs today, but it gets us nowhere. Sure, according to your GPS they take us from A to B, but according to my EPS (Economic Positioning System) they'll eventually take us back to exactly the same consumer-driven, deficit-towing economy that was forced off the road last year.

Shovel-ready projects that will educate science students, and engage them in advanced research, will provide construction jobs today, and dream jobs in the future.

On the Web:

Chemical Eye On... Columns by Preston MacDougall

Preston MacDougall is a chemistry professor at Middle Tennessee State University. His "Chemical Eye" commentaries are featured in the Arts and Public Affairs portion of the Nashville/Murfreesboro NPR station WMOT (

Preston MacDougall ©2009

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