NARRAGANSETT — University of Rhode Island PhD student Matt Dunn studies PFAS, a type of chemical that is extremely difficult to remove once present in the environment. As part of that work, Dunn does experiments with a 100-liter tank of water spiked with these so-called “forever chemicals” in a building on the Bay Campus here.
There’s just one problem: The ceiling of the Horn Laboratory building on Fish Road leaks during rainstorms, and sometimes the PFAS-spiked water in the tank will overflow.
“So that’s been a fun thing for me to clean up every now and then,” Dunn said.
That underscores the state of affairs at the University of Rhode Island’s Bay Campus in Narragansett, about six road miles from the main Kingston campus: A lot of important work being done in a place that could use a little TLC. Or maybe a lot. The university is trying to get $100 million worth of voter-approved funding and up to $78 million in federal funding to fix things up and reshape the Bay Campus. URI’s leaders say it could create a hub for jobs and the economy.
To highlight this potential future, URI’s leaders took U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (and The Boston Globe’s Rhode Island bureau) on a tour last week. The Graduate School of Oceanography, the College of Engineering, the College of Environment and Life Sciences, and the College of Education and Professional Studies have a presence on this campus, along with state and federal regulators and private industry. (There’s no residential presence on the Bay Campus.) Dunn’s work on detecting PFAS was just one of the stops during a more than hour-long visit that also touched on aquaculture, underwater vehicles, offshore wind, coastal resilience, and water quality — and revealed a somewhat bedraggled landscape, the sort of thing you don’t see very often on the spiffy college brochures for high school juniors and seniors.
“One thing you will notice is that the location is beautiful,” President Marc Parlange said as he walked around the campus. But the state of campus can be “quite shocking,” Parlange said.
There are two main pots of money they’re trying to get to improve the work that’s already going on at the Bay Campus.
One: Rhode Island voters in November will decide whether the state should borrow $100 million to fund initiatives there. Among other projects, the money would fund a new “Ocean Frontiers Building” to replace the leaky Horn Laboratory. It would also fund a new Ocean Engineering Education and Research Center, which would have research labs, classrooms and offices to replace 1970s-era buildings that were supposed to be temporary. And it would help bring in new ocean engineering instruments, like a wave and tow tank twice the size of the current 30-meter one. (In a wave and tow tank, researchers can test, for example, the effect of waves on wind turbines.)
Two: The URI Research Foundation is leading a grant application before the federal government to fund a blue economy technology cluster. (The blue economy is generally defined as industries that touch the coast and waters, like shipping, defense, renewable energy like wind power, and aquaculture.) The application is one of 60 national finalists for a grant from an agency within the Commerce Department, which is run by Rhode Island’s former governor, Gina Raimondo.
Winning that U.S. Economic Development Administration regional challenge grant would mean up to $78 million in funding for the group led by URI. That includes money for what’s called a “Smart Bay,” an underwater testing facility for research and development and prototyping; a Blue Tech Innovation Center building, for which there were blueprints to show off on last week’s tour; a wind power workforce pipeline; and other initiatives touching on industries ranging from ports to submarines to oysters.
The work behind that grant application brings together a bunch of different partners beyond URI, including private industry, represented on the tour and in the grant by the Partnership for Rhode Island, a nonprofit CEO roundtable. The blue economy could grow six to eight times more jobs than the economy-wide baseline, according to URI’s application.
It’s a lot to take in. To help conceptualize it, there’s a small-scale model of this vision of the future Bay Campus in the current Ocean Science and Exploration Center building.
Whitehouse credits Parlange’s predecessor, David Dooley, who led the university from 2009 to 2021, with starting the rebirth of the Bay Campus and getting it to where it is. And Dooley’s successor is continuing that work, Whitehouse said.
But the Graduate School of Oceanography, which is based at the Bay Campus and has a major presence there, “was a stepchild for too long,” Whitehouse said.
Whitehouse’s days on the campus date to lugging buckets of mud for his wife Sandra, who got her PhD in biological oceanography there.
“You go back 20, 30 years and having crap facilities was part of the street cred when you were a marine scientist,” Whitehouse said during a tour of a building that seemed to fit the description pretty well. “But now that we’re competing with major universities that are putting real investment in their facilities, it’s taken all the fun out of that form of street cred.”
It’s not just about aesthetics. Paula Bontempi, the dean of the Graduate School of Oceanography, said she’s had some faculty members come to her this summer with offers from other institutions. She’s had to reassure them that these decades-old facilities, some of which aren’t even climate controlled — not even controlled enough to keep out the rain — will be updated.
“We’ve been saying that for decades,” Bontempi said. “It’s just time.”
Parlange was born in Providence but spent time around the world, most recently in Australia, where he was a provost at Monash University. He had previously spent time at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne. URI could embrace that model, Parlange said: The collaboration between the university’s students and faculty with local companies helped attract companies globally, spinning off economic development and innovations. It would help the economy and bring jobs to Rhode Islanders, starting at the Bay Campus and spreading throughout the state.
“It’s all part of that sort of innovation entrepreneurship mindset that I think we really have the opportunity to build here,” Parlange said.
The fully realized version of that vision, though, is still in miniature model form. They’re hoping for help from Rhode Island voters and the U.S. Department of Commerce to make it a reality.
“This is really about Rhode Island’s university driving the future,” Parlange said.