Turner to back idea for data institute on UT’s land

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Mayor Sylvester Turner on Thursday will throw his support behind a proposal to build a data science institute in Houston on the 300-plus acres that the University of Texas System purchased last year.

In his lunchtime State of the City address, Turner plans to urge local universities, UT and Texas A&M University to take up recommendations from a UT task force, which said that an Institute for Data Science would bolster the city’s energy and health sectors. The group envisioned collaborations with industry and national laboratories, according to a report obtained by the Houston Chronicle.

UT Chancellor William McRaven called off the project in March, before the idea for the center was ever presented, amid intense political pressure and opposition from UT regents and the University of Houston.

Turner plans to call on Rice University, the University of Houston, Texas Southern University, Texas A&M University and the University of Texas to come to the table and “make this happen,” he said in an interview with the Houston Chronicle’s editorial board.

“We ought to be able to play in our unique space, and I think UT was onto something,” he said. “I don’t think it was explained very well, and I don’t think the initial approach went well. And people therefore became defensive.

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“But the Institute for Data Science is needed. I think it’s timely,” the University of Houston alumnus continued. “It can be quite innovative, and we shouldn’t miss the opportunity. So, let’s say UT sells the land to UH. But it needs to be collaborative in nature.”

Turner said he was approached by developer David Wolff to support the project. Wolff has tried to rally lawmakers, UT alumni and other Houston leaders to favor the project.

Supporters of the proposal say cutting-edge data science would keep Houston at the forefront of energy and health industries. The proposal’s authors imagined the institute’s work leading to more efficient and sustainable energy distribution and smarter health care delivery.

Resurrecting the proposal, however, may prove logistically and politically challenging. Texas lawmakers, both Republicans and Democrats, have been critical of UT’s $215 million land purchase, which occurred without consulting them. Gov. Greg Abbott never gave his support for the project.

Universities this session are preparing for steep financial cuts in a tight budget cycle overall.

McRaven, when cancelling the project in March, said it was taking away from UT’s existing universities and health institutions, echoing concerns raised by UT’s own regents. McRaven’s failed venture cost him political capital among several state lawmakers and Abbott’s office, according to various state officials.

And UH boosters have not eased off of their criticism of the purchase.

They call UT’s purchase an invasion that would present unfair competition for faculty, students and research funding. Unlike UH, UT can access the lucrative Permanent University Fund, a state-owned investment fund that funnels billions to A&M and the UT exclusively.

UH Board of Regents chairman Tilman Fertitta slammed the purchase as UT’s “arrogance” in April. “What happened there is the case of someone having PUF funds and too much money,” he said.

Turner said he had not spoken with Fertitta or UH Chancellor and President Renu Khator about the project or his support for it.

Reporter Rebecca Elliott contributed to this story.

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