AMHERST, MASS. - Already touted as the top U.S. polymer education program, the University of Massachusetts-Amherst campus last week dedicated a facility that it hopes will extend its reputation. ``I feel a little bit like I'm going into a church. I feel awe,'' said Rich-ard Stein, a UMass professor introduced as the father of polymer science at the dedication celebration of the $56 million Silvio O. Conte National Center for Polymer Research.
Stein, who began working at UMass in 1950, in the mid-1950s received the first grant in polymer research awarded to anyone at the university. The amount was $8,000. Since that time, UMass has attracted more than $120 million in polymer-related grants.
Neither the grants nor the polymer program at UMass. - recently ranked No. 1 by U.S. News & World Report - happened quickly. It was 30 years ago that Roger S. Porter, one of three recipients presented with the honorary degree of Doctor of Science at the dedication ceremonies, arrived on campus with the goal of creating a new discipline of polymer science and engineering.
At that time, said Chancellor David Scott, ``There were no students, no staff, no space.'' And from ``commandeered,'' cramped quarters emerged, ``first a program and then a department - now the finest in the world.''
In 1984 polymer scientists and administrators from the university met with now-deceased U.S. Rep. Silvio O. Conte to discuss the possibility of funding a world-class center. Conte believed a center would result in important scientific discoveries that could improve U.S. security and global competitiveness, Scott said.
``He became the driving force in securing the funding for construction of the facility that now bears his name.''
The facility can help keep U.S. industry competitive, despite stiff competition from other countries and diminishing investment in re-search by U.S. firms, said D. Allan Bromley, a Yale University professor and dean of engineering.
The nation's corporate laboratories ``are being systematically dismantled,'' said Bromley, as industry's timetable for products is reduced ``from years and decades to weeks and months.''
Meantime, said Bromley, Japan and Germany have targeted polymer science and technology ``as areas in which to accomplish everything they can to achieve world leadership.''
Bromley, who was the principal speaker at the UMass ceremony, was the first Cabinet-level Assistant to the President for Science and Technology serving in the Bush administration.
``One of the most important public policy questions is where and who will do the long-term research that will determine what our industrial world will produce 20 years into the future,'' he said.
``Our recent progress has been nothing short of spectacular,'' said Bromley. ``Today, polymer research contributes $100 billion each year to the gross domestic national product.''
According to a new study from the National Research Council titled, ``Polymer Science and Engineering: The Shifting Re-search Frontiers,'' Germany and Japan spent $3 for every $2 that the United States spent on polymer research and development last year.
Expressing doubts in the willingness of the United States to make the long-range investments needed to maintain a leadership role in international science and technology, Bromley predicted tough years ahead.
However, he concluded, ``The surprises and developments of the next 50 years will make those of the past pale by comparison.''
Corinne Conte, wife of the late congressman, presided at ribbon-cutting ceremonies of the 180,000-square-foot center.
The six-story center, which triples the available space for polymer teaching and research at UMass, provides offices for 20 faculty, staff and 185 graduate students, post-doctoral associates and visiting scientists.
The center houses about $16 million worth of research equipment, a 150-seat conference room and 103 research laboratories.
Other honorary degree recipients last week were Catherine Coleman, a NASA astronaut who completed her doctorate at UMass in 1991, and Walter H. Stockmayer, a leader in the physical chemistry of macromolecules and a teacher for 57 years.