Two years ago, leaders at UND and NDSU embarked on a promotional tour in hopes of securing state funding to boost research at the state’s two largest universities.

The idea was to secure $100 million, to be shared between them. Best case, that funding would create all sorts of return on investment, not just in technological innovations but also in reducing the outflow of some of the state’s top minds.

No such luck. But when the Legislature reconvenes in January, expect the effort to begin anew.

That’s good, although considering the economic woes brought on by the coronavirus pandemic and the 62-30 loss in the House in 2019, it’s difficult to predict success this time around.

Simply put: This state must become a research leader. It’s important that research be focused on ag and energy, since the state relies heavily on those two economic drivers, but also on other sectors, since eventually oil will run out.

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An example of the power of research exists at UND, in the Energy and Environment Research Center, whose work has helped develop cleaner and more efficient ways to develop coal, oil and natural gas.

Using EERC as the example, it’s easy to envision that money invested now could benefit the entire state, and not just the easternmost corridor.

During a recent meeting with the Herald, the Legislature’s top leaders said they’ll listen to research proposals, but that the last proposal was, in their opinion, flawed.

“I am for research dollars,” Sen. Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, said. “All you have to do is go over to the EERC (at UND) and see what they have done for the oil industry in North Dakota. We would not be where we are today in revenue if it wasn’t for the EERC. … But I can tell you right now, most legislators do not have real confidence in giving (a large amount of research-related dollars) to the administration at NDSU and UND and just saying ‘OK.’”

The Herald’s question in response: “But who created the EERC? The state, or administrators at UND?” (Note: According to its website, the EERC started as a federal facility, grown from research work done by a UND professor).

Rep. Chet Pollert, R-Carrington, responded.

“It was always there, but it was ineffective,” he said. “(Former Director Gerald) Groenewold was the guy who reinvigorated it and got it where it was. They went after grant dollars – they never used funding from the state.”

Herald: “But couldn’t that magic happen again?”

Coincidentally, the EERC can be used by both sides to make their point. Backers of a research proposal – and the Herald considers itself a backer – suggest looking at what the EERC has done for all of North Dakota. Opponents – or at least those who are hesitant – say the good work done there has been largely boosted by grant dollars, not large state handouts.

Both sides agree the EERC, with proper funding, has easily been worth the return on investment.

The trouble is that grant dollars aren’t always easy to come by, at least consistently.

Eventually, the state must realize its role in sparking the next EERC – something that will benefit all of North Dakota.