GRAND FORKS — In August 2018, the presidents of North Dakota’s two largest universities teamed up for an unprecedented proposal: secure $100 million in funding to boost research in, and for, the state.

In the two years since that announcement, a lot has changed, and especially at UND. Former President Mark Kennedy left UND last year. He was replaced in the interim by Joshua Wynne, who led UND through the beginning stages of the coronavirus pandemic. New UND President Andrew Armacost has now been in office nine weeks.

Meanwhile, the coronavirus pandemic and a sagging oil market have created uncertainty in North Dakota's economy.

Yet Armacost, North Dakota State University University President Dean Besciani and North Dakota University System Chancellor Mark Hagerott still plan to push another research proposal when the Legislature reconvenes early next year.

After the original proposal for the schools to split $100 million during the biennium was met with a cold shoulder, the schools knocked down the asking price. Instead, they asked to split 15% of the Legacy Fund’s earnings, or up to $45 million. While that bill passed the Senate in 2019, the legislation died on the House floor, 62-30. Not a single member of the North Dakota House west of Minot voted in favor of it; even votes west of Interstate 29 were hard to come by.

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The legislation was seen as a benefit to Fargo and Grand Forks, but not to the entire state, and Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, says that's something backers need to keep in mind this time around.

“Those people that are talking about the research issue, they need to make sure that it is something that our friends out in the (western portion of North Dakota) are going to feel is good for them,” Holmberg said. “It’s got to be statewide. Otherwise, it’s DOA.”

Since then, North Dakota’s higher-ed system has been working on ways to make a new proposal more appealing statewide. The State Board of Higher Education created a research committee tasked with molding a research proposal for the upcoming legislative session.

And while there is uncertainty in North Dakota's economy and, similarly, in the hopes of success with a new research proposal, Hagerott, the higher education chancellor, is convinced there is still hope for a proposal to boost research in the state.

“It’s not dead,” Hagerott told Forum News Service.

The current proposal is similar to the adjusted one that went before the Legislature last year. Specifically, 15% of Legacy Fund earnings, or other state funds, would be available to UND, NDSU and the system’s nine non-research campuses; dollars also would be available for the private sector. The funds would effectively be controlled by UND and NDSU with an oversight committee to ensure goals are being met. Of the funds, the bulk would go to UND and NDSU, but 10% would go to the other nine institutions.

Hagerott said leaders are considering getting the North Dakota Chamber of Commerce involved to get more input.

Leaders at both UND and NDSU say research and development projects are incredibly important for not only the state’s economy, but also for the people who live in North Dakota. Programs like rural health and unmanned aerial craft systems, especially in agriculture, have real benefits for people around the state, even if they aren’t top economic drivers, Armacost said.

“There are so many other opportunities that we can develop with the state support that we're requesting in this (research and development) request of Legacy funding,” Armacost said.

Research works, Bresciani said. When he arrived in North Dakota 11 years ago, he said most agriculture stopped at Bismarck. Now, there are large fields thriving west of Dickinson.

“That's because of research, not because some farmer got excited and put some seeds in the ground,” he said. “That’s an example of how research impacts the entire state. We need to do an even more compelling job of illustrating that.”

While the last proposal did pass the Senate by a 43-4 vote, the presidents acknowledge there is work to be done to further convince legislators, particularly those out west. The presidents are planning to hit the road again to speak with legislators and others about their proposal and plan to listen to input about how the proposal can be improved this time.

“I think it shows the belief in the value of the proposal,”Armacost said of the Senate passing the legislation. “We just hope to carry that sense of value over to the House.”

More hurdles

The system faces another hurdle this time around: the state’s potentially volatile economic situation. The coronavirus pandemic is likely to take a toll on the state’s budget and another rough year for oil and ag commodities may mean difficult decisions for legislators.

Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, says he’s in favor of research dollars, pointing to the success of the Energy & Environmental Research Center in Grand Forks.

“We would not be where we are today with the revenue if it wasn't for the EERC,” he said. “They're the best-kept secret in North Dakota.”

While he’s for research dollars going to university research projects, he said he is not in favor of the schools being the ones to control the money. He believes many legislators feel the same.

“I can tell you right now most legislators do not have a lot of confidence in giving it to the administrations at NDSU and at UND and saying ‘OK, go,’” Wardner said. “But we still believe in that research.”

It’s not uncommon for state legislatures to have some control over these types of programs, Bresciani said. But those types of proposals don’t always work out well, he added.

“It's also a recipe for the initiatives that have failed, nationally,” he said. “When the legislature becomes in control of the decision-making process, it becomes highly politicized. And with no disrespect meant, you're asking legislators who don't necessarily have a scientific background (to evaluate) the scientific merits of research proposals.”

Bresciani feels the universities have been thorough in their preparation work of the proposal, with various oversights in place to ensure dollars are going to programs that actually work. The current proposal follows proven, successful national models, he said.

“We recognize that if this gets funded and it isn't successful or garners criticisms, that it won't get funded in the future,” he said. “We understand that there's a bit of a gun in our head. We'd better make this thing work, or it'll cease to exist. But I'm also very confident that it will be successful because we are doing it the right way, using a model that nationally has been proven to work.”

House Majority Leader Chet Pollert noted the Legislature has priorities to sort out during the next session. How they rank is to be seen.

“It's a priority,” Pollert said. “But if I've got to pick between money for the EERC, or educating our kids, and taking care of our elderly, I know where I'm going to go.”

Pollert and Wardner said the universities need to be realistic with their ask to legislators. In turn, legislators need to be considering programs in other parts of the state, like nursing out west.

“So, all these dollars go to specific things, and we've got to make sure that all these folks are getting a few cuts of the pie,” Pollert said.

Diversifying the economy

While Hagerott acknowledges that the schools do get research dollars for those topics, he pointed out that those only mostly cover two industries: oil and ag.

If North Dakota wants success in the future and to be less dependent on commodity prices, there needs to be new dollars to diversify the economy, Hagerott said.

“(This pandemic) just shows in stark, stark terms our reliance on commodities: agriculture, and oil, and our need to diversify the economy,” he said.

The pandemic has also shown industry leaders across the country that there is an advantage for research and manufacturing to be in less populated areas, like North Dakota, Hagerott added.

Attracting new companies would be beneficial to the state’s economy and universities, he said, adding that North Dakota needs to invest in itself in order to compete with other states. Research isn’t about fixing North Dakota’s economy now, Hagerott said; instead, it’s about diversifying the state’s economy so there’s money when “the oil eventually begins to run out.”

“If we can just get started that will be a huge victory,” Hagerott said. “Then as more money becomes available we can add to it and as we see any success and traction we can add to it.”

It’s a sentiment with which the presidents agree.

“There's no more poignant reminder of the need for something like this than the economic situation North Dakota is once again finding itself in,” Bresciani said. “Whether legislators will see the way clear to provide the support or not remains to be seen. I will respect their decisions, regardless of whether it's supportive or not.

"But, boy, if you want to catch people when they're paying attention to the need for diversifying the economy, I can't think of a better time than proposing the program right now.”