URBANA — A research program "built from the ground up" more than 9,000 miles from Champaign-Urbana is "in full swing now" with more than a dozen projects and 100 employees, according to a director at the University of Illinois' first international research center in the Pacific Rim.
Four years into a $50 million research program in Singapore, organizers are calling the program a success and are considering options for continuing the university's presence there after the grant ends.
On Thursday, UI trustees are expected to hear a presentation about the Singapore initiative from Trustee James Montgomery. Montgomery is the only current trustee who was on the board in 2008 when it approved the structure that would pave the way for the university to open offices. Trustees are not being asked to take any action on the center; the presentation is for information only.
The university opened the Advanced Digital Sciences Center in 2009 in Singapore's Fusionopolis, a complex developed by the government's Agency for Science, Technology and Research. Years before, the government had approached the university about creating something like the UI's Coordinated Science Laboratory in its country. The CSL is a multidisciplinary information technology lab focused on computing, control and communications.
A necessary starting point for the university was that the new center could not be a financial burden to the university.
"This is an endeavor that has great benefits to the university but at no cost to students or taxpayers," said UI engineering Professor Bill Sanders, director of the Coordinated Science Laboratory and co-associate director of the Singapore center.
The program does not rely on any Illinois state appropriations or student tuition dollars, added Ravi Iyer, also a UI engineering professor and co-associate director of the Advanced Digital Sciences Center.
To set up shop in another country, the university created a limited liability corporation, of which the board of trustees is the member. The LLC then established a private entity in Singapore which allows for the center to legally compete for government grants, according to Sanders.
"We built it from the ground up," he said. And with 115 people, including 14 UI faculty members, plus Ph.D. students, post-doctoral researchers, interns and other staff working on more than a dozen research projects, "we're in full swing now," Sanders said.
Singapore, Iyer said, "is a great place where the world mingles, where people are addressing these important problems in computing."
The initial "anchor" grant from Singapore — $50 million — funds the Human Sixth Sense Project which looks at how people and organizations use and interact with technology, Sanders said. That includes looking at ways to make the cyber or digital world "as familiar and easy to use and as trustworthy" as a human friend, he said.
Sanders, who travels several times a year to Singapore, oversees a project on smart grid resilience and making it trustworthy. Every Monday, he convenes a meeting with those working on the project in Singapore via videoconferencing over the Internet.
The main grant from Singapore will be extended over about a six-year period. Looking ahead, Iyer said, administrators in Singapore are actively investigating additional grants that the center could obtain.
The time difference from Champaign-Urbana is 14 hours and the travel time is around 25 hours, but transitioning into the country after arriving there is relatively seamless, Iyer said.
"Singapore is very modern," he said. "The physical distance is large, but as far as changing your mindset, you really don't have to change your thinking. There are smart students and smart faculty" there, just as in Champaign-Urbana.
Board of Trustees meeting in Urbana
When: 8 a.m. to 3:15 p.m. Thursday, March 7
Where: Illini Union Rooms B & C, 1401 W. Green St., U.
Here's an overview of some major agenda items before the UI Board of Trustees:
Reports: Trustees also are expected to hear reports from Urbana Chancellor Phyllis Wise about key indicators in student admissions, faculty diversity, alumni giving and more. Chief Financial Officer Walter Knorr will provide an overview of the university's financial situation, and new UI Foundation President Thomas Farrell will appear before trustees. A presentation about academic freedom is scheduled to be given by University Senates Conference representative and UI Springfield Professor Peter Boltuc.
Assembly Hall: Trustees will vote on another professional services contract for AECOM, the firm chosen to develop architectural plans for the $160 million renovation. This week, students have been voting on a $50 annual fee to help raise money for the project. Trustees may learn the results of that student vote by the end of the day.
New centers: Trustees will vote to establish new centers on campus: The Grainger Center for Electric Machinery and Electromechanics, which houses College of Engineering programs such as the Solar Decathlon and the Formula Hybrid Team; and TIAA-CREF Center for Farmland Research in the College of Agriculture, Consumer and Environmental Sciences. Financial services company TIAA-CREF pledged $5 million for the new research center. Its faculty and staff will conduct research and outreach activities focusing on farmland values, taxation, rental agreements and more.
Student health insurance: Fall 2013 rates for undergraduates will increase 16 percent, or $35 per semester, to $254 per semester. Rates for graduate students will increase 6 percent, or $18 per semester, to $328 per semester.
Appointments: Academic and athletic appointments, including several assistant coaches for the football team.