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Barry Wilfahrt: Research drives an innovation economy

By Barry Wilfahrt

The UND president and the NDSU president recently completed a tour around North Dakota touting the value of state investment in research, including a request for $100 million from the Legislature in the next biennium. Legislators and taxpayers have a right to ask if this investment is worthwhile and has a strong return on investment. Let's look to some historical perspective first.

Research has played a valuable role in shaping our state's economy. Over 100 years ago, a UND botanist presented to Grand Forks business leaders his research on a potential new crop he felt would thrive in Red River Valley soils. Several years after the research presentation the valley's first sugar beet plant opened in East Grand Forks in 1926. With its stable market, sugar beets provide one of the best returns for area farmers. Overall, the sugar beet industry contributes well over a billion dollars in direct economic impact to the Red River Valley, according to a 2012 analysis.

Energy research has played an even bigger role in the state's history. In the 1890s, UND chemistry professor Earl Babcock studied the state's vast lignite coal resources and investigated possible uses for them. By the 1920s there were nearly 250 lignite mines. Use of lignite coal as a source of heat and cost efficient electric generation continues to benefit our state today.

UND energy research led to establishment of the Robertson Lignite Research Laboratory in 1951 — now the Energy and Environmental Research Center (EERC). It has an impressive list of accomplishments in its research on all fossil fuels, as well as renewable and alternative fuels, and in the field of pollution prevention and environmental cleanup technologies. The EERC's list of seven current goals includes potential game-changers for North Dakota, such as to reach at least 2 million barrels of oil production a day through advanced oil recovery techniques in the Bakken; eliminate pipeline leaks; and take full advantage of North Dakota's lignite and ethanol resources through carbon capture, utilization and sequestration technology.

Meanwhile our neighbors to the south at NDSU have their own research success stories. Ag Experiment Stations were established way back in 1887 and have been increasing productivity and profitability in agriculture ever since. Every year progress is made on plant disease forecasting and control, variety development, weed control, soil salinity, invasive species control, animal breeding and disease control, to name just a few most of us are familiar with. This research benefits our state's largest industry — agriculture.

Finally, just last week, Clean Republic announced it is currently planning to expand their battery production in Grand Forks using technology and a venture that was developed by a student with the Center for Innovation and jointly further developed by the UND College of Engineering and Mines' Institute for Energy Studies and Clean Republic with support from Research ND. The team has developed a new technique to manufacture lithium iron phosphate, a key component of the lithium ion batteries.

Back to the current request from the North Dakota research universities. UND and NDSU have identified eight areas they feel would be good opportunities to see a return on investment for North Dakota. UND sees energy and environmental sustainability, human health, rural health, unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) and big data as their big opportunities. NDSU has identified food systems and security, healthy populations and vital communities, and sustainable energy, environmental and societal infrastructure as their opportunity areas.

Both college presidents say "research can change the trajectory of the state." Based on the over 100-year history of research in North Dakota, they are right. It already has. Research funding is clearly worth the investment.

Barry Wilfahrt is president and CEO of The Chamber of Grand Forks/East Grand Forks