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Our view: SB 2282 puts research back in public sphere

Herald editorial board

The University of North Dakota is aptly named — it's a university that benefits North Dakota. It has unique specialties that provide value to the entire state, including its Energy and Environmental Research Center, dedicated to finding solutions to the world's energy and environmental challenges.

The University of North Dakota. That's 53 counties, 357 towns and 70,762 square miles. It is not simply a benefactor to Grand Forks, East Grand Forks and the northern Red River Valley.

So as UND President Mark Kennedy and NDSU President Dean Bresciani traveled the state last year promoting an idea to increase research at the two universities, it seemed logical they would be met with basic — albeit guarded — open-mindedness.

Surprisingly, that didn't seem to be the case. Off the record, we heard some critics say their $100 million proposal was too bold and would benefit only eastern North Dakota. Then, their proposal wasn't mentioned in Gov. Doug Burgum's budget speech last month.

Now, a variation has sparked anew in the Legislature, giving hope to the idea's proponents.

Senate Bill 2282 would provide for an "economic diversification through research grant program" and a corresponding fund. It would be overseen by an advisory committee, to include the president of the Bank of North Dakota, the state commerce commissioner, the chairperson of the State Board of Higher Education and others.

Dollars would come from a transfer of 15 percent of Legacy Fund earnings — not the principal, but the interest — and would support research efforts at UND and NDSU.

It is not exactly the idea pitched by Kennedy and Bresciani, but it's in the same spirit and similarly could prove monumental in boosting research with statewide ramifications.

It was introduced by Sen. Ronald Sorvaag, R-Fargo, and co-sponsored by Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks; Sen. Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson; Rep. Karla Rose Hanson, D-Fargo; Rep. John Nelson, R-Rugby; and Rep. Chet Pollert, R-Carrington.

Read those names and consider a map of the state; then put an imaginary stick pin in each sponsor's hometown. The resulting image shows six pins scattered across the map, indicating statewide interest — from Grand Forks in the northeast, to Fargo in the southeast, to Carrington and Rugby in the center and Dickinson in the west.

Also, these are influential lawmakers. Wardner is majority leader in the Senate and Pollert is majority leader in the House. Hanson is assistant minority leader in the House and Holmberg is the longtime chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

"I think a key motivator for the people who co-sponsored (SB 2282) is because it is a topic worthy of consideration," Kennedy told the Herald.

Indeed it is. And SB 2282 will return the topic of research funding back to the public sphere.

Holmberg said the proposal still faces an upward climb, and we don't disagree. Many hands are extended in hopes of grabbing dollars earned by the Legacy Fund.

But, Holmberg said, the presidents "deserve to have the opportunity to come here and make the case and convince the Legislature that this is where money should be spent."

That's fair. Now, the presidents get another chance — this time backed by legislative interest from across the state.