GRAND FORKS — Higher education leaders will again ask the North Dakota Legislature to use $100 million from the Legacy Fund to fuel research at the state’s two flagship institutions, but other public institutes may see money as well if the proposal succeeds.
In a three-page document obtained Thursday, Nov. 14, by The Forum, North Dakota State University President Dean Bresciani and University of North Dakota interim President Joshua Wynne laid out their proposal to use money from interest earned on the Legacy Fund's $6.36 billion. The requested amount is the same Bresciani and former UND President Mark Kennedy wanted for the 2019-20 biennium.
"The commendable definition of a 'legacy fund' is and should be a resource that creates and provides ongoing return on investment of those funds," Wynne and Bresciani said in their proposal. "Doing so through the state's two research universities would catalyze applied research in a manner that to date ... has been beyond their means but is common elsewhere in the country."
Bresciani noted the proposal Wednesday, Nov. 13, to the research committee for the State Board of Higher Education, which is reviewing its duties and a tentative timeline to submit research initiative proposals in the 2021-22 legislative session. The committee wants to develop those proposals by February, according to a draft timeline.
Bresciani and Wynne have tweaked the proposal they pitched across North Dakota over the last year. UND and NDSU would have split $50 million for each year of the 2019-20 biennium, but in a 43-4 vote, the state Senate capped the total fund for those two years at $45 million. The House rejected the initiative 62-30.
Some legislators appeared to support the research but opposed the bill, saying there are state funds that already go into research. But Bresciani seemed confident about the push for the initiative this time around.
“If it got close last time, boy, this one, there’s something pretty optimistic about it,” Bresciani said.
The goal is to obtain dollars from the Legacy Fund to spur research into economic diversification in the state, as well as investigate technological advancements for the agriculture and energy sectors, with the opportunity to match those funds with donations from private sources when possible, according to the proposal.
“With some very important tweaks that Dr. Wynne and I have put into it this time, I think it will make it more attractive, including for the nine non-research universities, there's actually a slice of the allocation as well,” Bresciani said.
The committee is working on several documents that will detail opportunities, strengths and goals for the initiative. The tentative timeline includes a January deadline of identifying the top two research priorities on which UND and NDSU should collaborate.
By March, the committee would like to find the most urgent research fields afflicted by wage gaps and “develop strategies to mitigate the outflow of talent in critical areas,” according to the proposed timeline. It also wants a plan to engage with stakeholders by June.
“We have to be able to take whatever we do and sell it to people who may not know a lot about universities and probably know even less about research and what it means,” SBHE attorney said Eric Olson said. “That’s a big task.”
‘Turned a lot of heads’
Valley Prosperity Partnership Co-Chair Steve Burian iterated the importance of supporting research universities as he spoke Tuesday, Nov. 12, in Fargo to the Legislature’s Legacy Fund earnings committee. The economic development advocacy group made of businesses, community leaders, university and others in the Red River Valley was formed in 2012 with a $100,000 investment from Forum Communications Co. Chairman William C. Marcil, with a priority on workforce, water infrastructure and research universities.
Forum Communications owns The Forum.
Research would make North Dakota more competitive in the agriculture and energy industries, Burian told legislators. Funding NDSU and UND so it can conduct more research also can create more opportunities to diversify North Dakota’s economy so the state doesn’t have to “put so much reliance on soil and oil,” Burian told The Forum.
“When we reconvened after the session to revisit our strategic plan, we recognized that supporting research again going into the 2021 session would be critical,” he said of the partnership.
Almost 80% of voters surveyed by a scientific poll commissioned by the VPP said North Dakota should invest in research, and more than three-fourths agreed UND and NDSU can aid in diversifying the economy through researching emerging technologies.
VPP would support funds to non-research institutes in North Dakota. Money from any state fund — not just Legacy dollars — that would support the research institutes would be acceptable, he said.
Regardless, Burian said he feels backers of the initiative can come up with a proposal that will gain legislative approval. Universities have examples from schools to show what research dollars can achieve, he said.
“I think we made a lot of inroads last session. I think we turned a lot of heads,” he said.