April 06, 2020

Legislators seek to jump-start research> Panel in Augusta likely to recommend $20 million in state funds for science projects

A legislative panel is likely to recommend that at least $20 million in additional state funds be devoted to scientific research in Maine.

In a draft report, the committee, which is made up solely of lawmakers, said it will recommend $10 million be added to the university system’s annual budget to support research. A bond issue, totaling $10 million to $18 million to help the university campuses upgrade their research infrastructure is also recommended.

The committee was supposed to submit a final report to the Legislature on Thursday, but the deadline was extended due to last week’s ice storm. A final report will be submitted later this month.

Before drafting a report, the lawmakers toured both the University of Maine and University of Southern Maine campuses and viewed some of the research that is taking place at those institutions. According to the draft report, the lawmakers were impressed with what they saw, but were concerned that they had not been aware — and, therefore, the public was likely also unaware — of much of the scientific activity in Maine.

So, in addition to more money, the committee concluded that a better job must be done of informing the public of the benefits of investments in research and development of new products.

“It’s important for the state to support applied research and development in Maine because R&D creates business opportunities, jobs, income and tax revenue through development of new products and improvments in the current technology of existing businesses,” the draft report said.

The committee recommended that state resources be targeted to five areas: biotechnology, composite materials, computer software, marine science, and environmental science and technology.

The recommendations are based on some bleak findings. Maine ranks 49th in the nation, just ahead of Wyoming, in the amount of money spent on research and development. The state is 51st — behind Puerto Rico — in the amount of money its universities spend on research. Nationally, the federal government spent $13.5 billion in 1996 on research at universities. Maine received less than 0.2 percent of that money.

The recommendations are not new. In July 1996, the legislatively-appointed Commission on Higher Education Governance recommended that the state provide a minimum of $10 million over the following two years to promote research that will aid in the state’s economic development.

Last year, a group of five University of Maine professors traveled the state to press for a $20 million annual state investment in research, primarily on the Orono campus. Their call was taken up by Senate President Mark Lawrence, D-Kittery, who advocated for a yearly $20 million investment in research as part of his Jumpstart 2000 program.

As a result of these efforts, the Legislature last year allocated $500,000 to the Portland and Orono campuses for research. The schools leveraged that money into $2.7 million in federal research funds.

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