North Dakota leaders weigh in on research money proposal for higher ed
The head of North Dakota's higher education board says he's supportive of the state's largest universities' proposal for new dollars for research, as long as that research doesn't just sit on a shelf.
UND and NDSU each are seeking $25 million a year in the next biennium, for a total $100 million, to fund research at the schools. It's a considerably higher amount than the schools would typically receive.
Don Morton, chairman of the State Board of Higher Education, told the Herald that if the universities do receive the funding, there must be a focus on emerging technologies that will be beneficial for the entire state.
"We don't want to keep funding some old research," Morton said. "We want to really embrace the 21st century when it comes to research dollars."
Mark Hagerott, chancellor of the North Dakota University System, said he met with legislators more than a year ago and discussed possible requests for more money for research and emerging technology in the state.
"I'm supportive of state resources into research into new (areas), into new fields and new stuff that we've got to adapt to," he said, noting the exact amount of money could differ once the upcoming legislative session begins in January.
Hagerott said he is "firm" that any additional research dollars have to go to new, emerging areas and that the research has to fit with what North Dakota needs and that it is applicable to the future.
Morton said the private sector also is willing to help the schools and added that the two universities working together gives the state critical mass and scale.
"There is a big payoff. It's not immediate, but there is a big payoff to research, especially (research) that can be commercialized," Morton said.
Morton said Jay Schuler, who heads up the state's Department of Commerce, is encouraging the research universities to do more commercialization of their work.
"There's a little bit of complexity, but when it comes to research, it takes funding, it takes funding from different resources. It takes planning, it takes collaboration, and you've got to start somewhere and that's what we're doing," he said.
UND President Mark Kennedy began making public comments about the proposal earlier this summer during presentations of the his in-depth strategic plan for UND.
Kennedy and NDSU President Dean Bresciani gave a rare joint presentation earlier this month in Grand Forks about the proposal and said investment in the research universities will return that money and more back to the state.
"We need the state of North Dakota to better appreciate how much benefit the state could see from investment in research and how investing in more research benefits not just our universities, but the state and its citizens," Kennedy said during the presentation.
NDSU receives state funding for its agricultural research extension centers, state Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, said. There is no direct funding mechanism set aside for research at UND.
Additionally, the state also matches federal funding the two research universities get through Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR.) This year's state match was $6 million, which is then shared between the schools.
State Board view
SBHE vice chair Greg Stemen said he believes investment in research is "always positive" and is supportive of the presidents working together.
"The most important thing is whenever you're requesting investment you want to be able to attempt to show that there will be true return on that investment and I think that history shows that there's been numerous successes, and hopefully we'll see that continuing," Stemen said.
Stemen said everyone is aware of the state of North Dakota's economy, noting that revenues from oil and agriculture aren't what they were several years ago.
"Our state legislators and the governor are going to be very judicious with the state funds. It's just a matter of where are the priority areas," he said. "So, is it a substantial amount? Yes, nobody questions that, but I think it's up to two very capable presidents to demonstrate why that's an area that will potentially generate new dollars for the state in the long run."
Kathleen Neset, former chair of the board, said she is glad to see the universities working together on the proposal.
"Together they are stronger, as is the state of North Dakota," she said. "The research dollars are just so instrumental to all the good work that both UND and NDSU are doing. I just feel that they are a stronger force when they are working together. It just speaks well to the state and our higher education."
New board member Daniel Traynor, a Devils Lake-based attorney, declined to comment on the proposal until he had more information about it.
The Herald's attempts to reach other board members—including Nick Hacker, Casey Ryan and Jill Louters—were not successful.
After Bresciani and Kennedy spoke together in Grand Forks earlier this month, Holmberg said the important thing for the presidents is to "get their message out there," and especially in western North Dakota.
Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, said he doesn't yet know too much about the proposal, but said he supports research and would need to take the entire budget into account before making any promises.
"I'm sure I'm going to listen," he said. "We've got to take a look at our other needs, too.
"I'm for research, and I think we need to do more research in the state. Research has been good to us," Wardner continued.
In addition to visiting Fargo, Kennedy and Bresciani indicated earlier this month they plan to make stops in Bismarck and the western part of the state to share their proposal.
Holmberg said earlier this month that finding the money for a proposal is always a challenge, but said he believes stability with research is a good thing.
There are many competing interests when it comes to the state funds available for investments like this, Holmberg said, noting that $100 million may be too much to ask for up front.
"I want to see how much money we have and what's going to be there," he said.