FARGO - The presidents of North Dakota's two flagship universities said the state's long history of economic peaks and valleys underscores the need for strategic investments in university research to help diversify an economy dependent on agriculture and oil.
Dean Bresciani, president of North Dakota State University, and Mark Kennedy, president of the University of North Dakota, outlined their proposal for the state to invest $100 million in research at the two campuses over a four-year period.
"We're pro-oil and soil, but we're wanting to move the economy to a more diversified setting," Kennedy said, referring to moving beyond agriculture and energy as economic pillars.
"We've got to diversify our economy," Bresciani added. "This state has a long and painful history of peaks and valleys."
The two presidents met with The Forum Editorial Board on Wednesday, Sept. 12, before an appearance with the Valley Prosperity Partnership, a regional economic development initiative they credited with helping to spur their proposal, unveiled last month.
North Dakota is at a competitive disadvantage with states that systematically funnel significant financial support for their research universities to spur economic development, the two presidents said.
The two universities will invest state dollars on research projects with the potential to provide economic benefits for the state and to help expand the state's workforce, the presidents said.
"This isn't an expense," Bresciani said. "It's an investment and catalyst," and will yield a return on investment for the state.
Both UND and NDSU are among 222 "high" and "highest" ranked U.S. research universities in the Carnegie Classification rankings, but could do even better with significant state backing, Kennedy said. Carnegie recognizes 335 research universities in the nation.
The two presidents soon will embark on a tour of cities in western North Dakota to promote the research-as-economic-development initiative. So far, both said, the idea has found a warm reception around the state.
"There is statewide understanding that the two research universities have a very different role" and are important players in developing the state's economy, Bresciani said. "Business leaders now get it and they're trying to do something about it."
The proposal is not in competition with the other nine campuses in the North Dakota University System, Kennedy said. Although not research campuses, they play an important role in workforce development, he said.
The two presidents are seeking $25 million per year for each campus over the next four years. They are asking for "block grants" that would allow maximum flexibility in spending the money, allowing university researchers to quickly respond to research needs and to attract funding from federal and private sponsors.
In fact, increased state funding would help to generate increased federal and corporate support. In a single week, UND received about $40 million in federal funding, Kennedy said.
Significant state support for research, Bresciani said, "says to them you're serious about the game you're in," referring to federal and private partners.
As proposed, a review panel would oversee the research spending and determine whether it meets a state priority and whether the two universities are collaborating where they can, Kennedy said.
Although it likely will take a couple of years for research to produce tangible results, the two presidents say they realize they will have to demonstrate a payoff for state support.
"The resource stream is going to dry up if we don't prove it," Bresciani said. "We get that."
Progress can be measured in the outside funding that the initiative produces, the number of patent applications and the number of business startups stemming from research, among other benchmarks, Kennedy said.
North Dakota could earmark part of its oil and gas revenues to help pay for the research initiative, Kennedy said. Texas has done that since the late 1800s, using oil extraction revenues to support the University of Texas and Texas A&M, its top research universities.
"This is not a new game plan," Kennedy said. Bresciani added, "It's a proven formula if you ask Texans."