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KNOXVILLE – Nine research centers created last year at the University of Tennessee have attracted nearly $53 million in outside funding, UT officials said.

The UT Research Centers of Excellence far surpassed even their second year goal of $30 million, said Eli Fly, acting UT president.

“They’re off to a great start,” Fly said. “The strong showing by the centers in their first year will benefit the state’s economy, but more importantly it will bring renewed vitality to our undergraduate teaching programs.

“A healthy research program is at the heart of any great teaching university.”

The research centers were created in late 2000 and started operating in February 2001. The state Legislature has provided the first $7.5 million installment of a $30 million pledge to establish the centers, which represent some of UT’s most promising research areas.

Fly said UT researchers can use the state money as matching funds to leverage larger grants and federal support.

The Center of Excellence for Diseases of Connective Tissue won $16.7 million in first-year awards. The Neurobiology of Brain Diseases center received $8.3 million in contracts. Both are located at the UT Health Sciences Center in Memphis.

Research programs of those who are now heading the centers were attracting about $12 million a year in contracts before they were created.

“We felt we had to compare the performance of the centers against a business-as-usual standard,” said Dr. Dwayne McCay, UT vice president for research and information technology. “The baseline amount represents a three-year average of the total these scientists were bringing in prior to creation of the centers.

“The first-year numbers demonstrate the importance of the state’s investment for matching funds and the synergy of bringing research together under the center concept.”

Two other centers in Memphis include genomics and bioinformatics, and vascular biology. The five centers in Knoxville include research concentrations in environmental biotechnology, information technology, structural biology, advanced materials and food safety.