Grant McGimpsey: Invest in state's research capacity

By Grant McGimpsey As I near retirement from UND, I am reflecting on our role as the flagship research university of North Dakota and the value of the university to North Dakotans. At its core, UND is a learning community -- faculty, students, st...

Grant Gimpsey
Grant Gimpsey

By Grant McGimpsey

As I near retirement from UND, I am reflecting on our role as the flagship research university of North Dakota and the value of the university to North Dakotans.

At its core, UND is a learning community - faculty, students, staff and the public - who work together to advance our collective understanding of the world. We are a source of new artistic, cultural and scientific ideas. But we are not an "ivory tower" - far from it! Our educational and research programs focus on creating a highly trained workforce and driving technological innovations that have crucial impacts on North Dakota's core economic pillars - energy and agriculture - and just as importantly on growing high technology sectors, including Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) and Big Data.

Like other national research universities, UND has significant research strengths. Our biomedical research has grown exponentially, with over $100 million in federal funding in the past seven years, culminating in our most recent $20 million clinical research award from the National Institutes of Health. Our energy research, at both the Energy & Environmental Research Center and the Institute for Energy Studies, is internationally recognized for quality and relevance in our increasingly energy-hungry world. North Dakota is carbon-rich and UND's research is finding sustainable ways to use this energy.

These strengths are important reasons why I came to UND in 2015 as vice president for research & economic development. They speak to UND's impact on North Dakota and the lives of North Dakotans. Another reason was the university's national leadership in UAS. Our collaborations with large and small industrial partners and our partnership with the Northern Plains UAS Test Site have helped solidify North Dakota's reputation as a place of "firsts," a UAS proving ground where new ideas and protocols can be tested and used across the country and around the world.


However, North Dakota and UND must recognize being first is not necessarily a guarantee of long-term economic success. While we are "groundbreakers," we have a lot to do before we see our rightful share of economic benefits from UAS. There are many competitive regions around the country and world that already are building on our successes.

Extracting economic value from UAS does not come from flying, although that is critical; it comes from turning the vast amounts of data that are gathered by UAS - in agriculture, energy, utilities, construction and other sectors - into actionable and valuable information that can be used to drive innovation. This is Big Data! A small UAS equipped with a simple video camera will fill the hard drive of your laptop in about 15 minutes. With such vast amounts of data, research is needed to find better ways to analyze it quicker.

UND is making its most significant research investments in Big Data analytics, particularly Big Data generated from UAS, with the firm conviction they will have the greatest long-term economic impact on the state. In 2017, UND established the Research Institute for Autonomous Systems, focused on new ways to gather, process and secure data acquired using UAS platforms. We also just announced a $10 million-plus, six-year investment to recruit the best Big Data researchers to the university.

UND believes our investments will help transform North Dakota's economy. But we cannot achieve this transformation alone. Building and maintaining economic competitiveness in UAS, Big Data, energy and medicine require, long term investments in talent beyond UND's own funding capacity.

UND President Mark Kennedy and NDSU President Dean Bresciani have traveled the state together, teaming with the Valley Prosperity Partnership, economic development groups and chambers of commerce, to remind North Dakotans that we must invest in the research capacity of our universities to grow and diversify our economy. Our proposal for $25 million of state investment - in the form of a block grant to each of the state's two research universities each year of the next biennium, overseen by the Bank of North Dakota and with clear expectations for returns on investment - promises to transform the economy of the state, just as similar investments have done in other states across the country.

These are challenging economic times for our country and state. Low agricultural commodity prices and wildly oscillating oil prices have strained budgets. North Dakota clearly needs to strengthen its core industries and seek economic diversification. Given the importance of research to economic diversification, I can think of no better investment than the long-term support of research at our research universities.

Grant McGimpsey is vice president for research and economic development and dean of the UND graduate school.

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