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Phyllis E. Johnson: Support of research infrastructure is critical

By Phyllis Johnson

I have followed with interest the request by UND President Kennedy and NDSU President Bresciani for state funding to support research at the two universities. When I came to UND 10 years ago as vice president for research and economic development, I identified state investment in research as a critical need. Thus, I'm happy to see the two presidents advocating for state funding for research.

However, I have concerns about how the request has been framed. It is understandable that the request has been framed as supporting economic development and diversification, goals that everyone can support.

Unfortunately, this reflects a shallow understanding of how research really works. The next legislative session will be far too soon to see if research funding has been helpful, because research and commercialization don't happen that fast.

The argument seems to be that the funds will be used for seed money for research projects or to provide matching funds to get grants, and that the products of this research will rapidly create new business in North Dakota. This overlooks the critical need to support research infrastructure at UND, which has never been robust and which has been seriously gutted in the past few years.

Research universities make investments in research infrastructure. Large pieces of laboratory equipment that are too costly to be obtained through grants are purchased and maintained by the institution; such equipment is shared across campus. The institution also provides staff to operate shared equipment. Routine operating costs and consumables for the equipment are paid from grants the individual users receive. For getting grants in the sciences, having the right equipment to do the work is absolutely necessary.

Administrative support for grants and contracts is critical. Most universities help with preparation of grant proposals and monitor expenditures after a grant is received. Federal regulations are complex and constantly changing; the expertise of grants and contracts professionals expedites the proposal process and prevents the university from violating conditions of the grant award. A violation can be serious; failing a federal grant audit can result in multi-million-dollar fines, and the entire university can be debarred from receiving funding from a particular agency.

Unfortunately, UND provides virtually no pre-award assistance and has reduced grants and contracts staff in the past few years. Principal investigators on most grants also need administrative assistance that cannot be funded by the grant itself. This is funded at the institutional level in other universities.

Before the recent downsizing, UND faculty were already at a disadvantage in this respect. Given the budget cuts UND has sustained in recent years, I expect this is even worse today. Administrative support frees researchers to do research.

Not all research leads to patentable inventions, but when this occurs, a technology transfer office helps inventors to apply for patents and finds commercial partners to license the invention. It typically takes seven years or more after the patent application for commercialization to occur. The idea that state funding will yield new businesses in just a couple of years is not realistic. Not only that, but UND eliminated the position held by the head of technology transfer last year.

When universities recruit faculty who will do research, they offer a start-up package that allows the new hire to equip a lab and hire technical help to get their research program underway.

When I was at UND, it was difficult to come up with $100,000 for a start-up package, while universities that lured some of our best young faculty away could offer start-up packages nearly 10 times that size. State funds could help hire and retain the best.

Finally, the committee proposed to oversee use of the state funding is heavy on people who are not familiar with research and what it takes to make research successful. The committee would include a Bank of North Dakota representative, the commerce commissioner, an SBHE representative, and the two university presidents, plus "four others" who are not described. The state needs to make this investment in research, but the oversight committee needs to include people who understand research and research administration. If this committee is meant to approve disbursement of funds for individual projects, it's likely to be more cumbersome than nimble. Decisions about use of funds would be best made at the institutional level with an external committee doing oversight after the fact. This assumes that the institution has research administrators who have both broad and deep understanding of the many STEM disciplines that the funding could impact.

Phyllis E. Johnson is a former vice president for research and economic development at UND. Prior to that, Johnson spent 18 years in the Senior Executive Service at USDA and 13 years as director of USDA's largest research center.