Leaders at UND, NDSU testify for research dollars
BISMARCK—Support for increased research dollars for UND and North Dakota State University was high as the presidents of the universities spoke to the Senate Appropriations Committee Thursday at the Capitol.
Senate Bill 2282, introduced by Sen. Ron Sorvaag, R-Fargo, would transfer 15 percent of Legacy Fund earnings to an economic diversification research fund that would support work by UND and NDSU.
UND President Mark Kennedy and NDSU President Dean Bresciani had previously proposed splitting $100 million over the next biennium, with each school receiving $25 million a year. The two spent part of 2018 traveling the state to speak about the value of research in the state. However, that number has since been downscaled to 15 percent of Legacy Fund earnings with a cap at $45 million.
The money would not be available for use until after the biennium is concluded, so a loan function is worked into the bill that would allow the universities to access the money sooner.
During a press conference Thursday, Sorvaag said the reason for the number drop is not about getting the bill passed, but finding a "realistic" number. The Legacy Fund is expected to generate approximately $300 million worth of earnings over the next biennium, according to Sorvaag, and asking for one-third of that is just too much. He added that as the Legacy Fund grows the money could look different in future bienniums.
Several high-ranking legislators are co-sponsors on the bill, including Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, and Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, in the Senate. In the House, Majority Leader Chet Pollert, R-Carrington, Jon Nelson, R-Rugby, and Karla Rose Hanson, D-Fargo, also sponsor the bill.
Many legislators have expressed curiosity about the proposal, Sorvaag said, adding he has not heard a lot of negatives about it.
The bill also includes the creation of an advisory committee for the fund, which would include the president of the Bank of North Dakota, the commerce commissioner, the chair of the State Board of Higher Education and the two university presidents, as well as four others.
The bill would require the advisory committee to report back on the work that has been done by the schools in order for the funds to be re-evaluated.
Bresciani said the model they are using is "proven around the nation" and added that lack of research stimulation is unusual. He acknowledged that if the proposal is approved, the research universities will have to prove the money is being put to good use.
"We'll have a pistol to our head. We'll be playing a bit of a game of Russian roulette and we better win or we won't see these resources again," Bresciani said after the meeting.
During the committee hearing, Kennedy said he is "quite confident" that if the state makes this commitment to research, the universities will have good news to share in two years.
Kennedy said UND is already "putting our money where our mouths are" and has reallocated $6 million in the last three years to provide dollars he says are leading to more federal funding. The university is also investing more money over the next five years to hire digital scientists, Kennedy said.
"I firmly believe we will not only attract a lot more federal dollars to the state, but those research dollars will generate discoveries and generate high-tech talent that will enrich the state," Kennedy said during his testimony.
Bresciani and Kennedy emphasized that research benefits the entire state, not just the Red River Valley.
Several members of the private sector came to show support for the bill during the committee, including members of the agriculture, medical and energy industries. Mark Hagerott, chancellor of the North Dakota University System, also lent his support for the bill, noting that there is a sense of urgency for the dollars as North Dakota universities are in a battle for research, talent and people.
After the hearing, Sen. Tim Mathern, D-Fargo, said he supports the bill, but would like to see the private sector add money to the fund because the private sector would see the benefits of the research being done.
"I think it's an excellent idea," Mathern said. "I think it should be properly funded and I think we should have the private industries add to the fund to essentially make it a public-private research effort."
A bill that would give research dollars to the Energy and Environmental Research Center in Grand Forks also was discussed Thursday.
Senate Bill 2249, introduced by Holmberg, would create the state energy research fund, which would give dollars dedicated for exploratory research at the EERC.
The bill would put 2 percent of oil and gas gross production tax and oil extraction tax revenues into the state energy research center fund every month, up to $6 million per biennium. The money would go into the fund before it is deposited into the general fund.
Tom Erickson, head of the EERC, said the EERC has received fewer federal dollars allowing for exploratory research, which is important to create projects such as Project Tundra, an ongoing EERC initiative to retrofit the Milton R. Young Station, near Center, N.D., with a carbon-capture system.
Sen. Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, also gave his support for SB 2249 and general research in the state.
"I support research in the state of North Dakota and our two research universities," he said.
Wardner said if it wasn't for the research at places like UND and the EERC, the state wouldn't be where it is at today with oil production and research in the Bakken.
"We need to continue research and support it as much as we can," he said.
Other industry leaders, including representatives from Red Trail Energy and Minnkota Power, also spoke in favor of the bill.