February 18, 2019

R&D your way to elected office

Secretary of State Matt Dunlap announced Wednesday that 546 candidates had met the deadline for federal, state or county primaries. I’ve got a platform for all of them – liberal, conservative, incumbent, newcomer, the angry and the let-us-reason crowd. To be honest, it’s just part of a platform. More precisely, a single question.

Annually for the last five years a team from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has visited Maine, as it did this week for its final time, and responded to three questions legislators asked when Maine hired the team to evaluate its research and development investments. Having been part of a state that has spent about $200 million in tax dollars on R&D since ’99, you too may want to know how things are going.

The answers to the first two investment questions are reassuring. Is Maine-sponsored R&D more competitive than it used to be? You bet, says the team’s summary, though in the first couple of years Maine researchers spent some of their energies overcoming inertia. Second, how have Maine’s investments affected the R&D industry here? More good news. Since just 2003, it has leveraged $492 million in grants, inspired 3,148 scientific peer-reviewed journal articles and led to 43 patent applications, 155 licenses and 13 new ventures.

The answer to the third question is where the campaign begins. Has the state R&D investment made Maine more innovative? The UNC group writes plainly: “The ultimate objective of economic development is being realized but pace suggests significant challenges.”

One of the researchers, Michael Luger, the director of the Center for Competitive Economics at UNC, describes the problem succinctly. “Maine is running faster than ever,” he says, “but so is everyone else.” Maine began this race in last place, literally, among states in dollars dedicated to R&D; over the last six or seven years its has improved in every economic category imaginable. Maine knows and the evaluation team confirms that the state is headed in the right direction for training, facilities, employment. But it’s not doing enough to do more than maintain a place somewhere at the back of the pack.

So those 546 candidates are handed this opportunity: Answer how Maine could pick up the pace. The best part is that they don’t have to invent their own plan. Last fall, Janet Yancey-Wrona, the director of Maine’s Office of Innovation, published “A Science and Technology Action Plan for Maine.” I’d have chosen a more compelling title like “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” or “American Inventor,” but it’s too late for that now and I suppose the plan itself is eye-catching enough.

In brief, it expects Maine to hit $1 billion a year in R&D economic activity by 2010, which would put Maine at the national average, about 3 percent of gross state product. R&D activity here was at $430 million the last time it was measured, a couple of years ago, with not much time before the deadline. But that’s the point – move faster. The UNC evaluation team urges Maine to think big, expanding collaborations on projects, creating more opportunities for university-private partnerships and moving aggressively toward private R&D commercialization.

The easy part for candidates is that when Maine figured out the benefits of R&D in the late 1990s, both Republicans and Democrats liked the idea. Both saw the state was missing out not only on huge numbers of competitive grants but on building an economy through a process that let it evolve with the times rather than become overly dependent on one industry, to which it then must cling long after it should have let go. R&D invests heavily in workers who can apply their skills to numerous areas, just as R&D takes products and applies and modifies them for new situations.

Some of those uses are exotic – medical breakthroughs, lasers and space-age tracking devices – but others are better versions of what already existed – a pier that doesn’t rot, healthier fish, composite building materials. “The wonderful thing about a tech-based economy is you never know” what will emerge, said Irwin Feller from the evaluation team. The alternative to this investment, however, is known, and it isn’t so wonderful.

One of the more immediate goals in the plan is where you either make your move to catch up to some of the states or be content with a loser’s shuffle. It says Maine should spend $75 million in state funding next year, $35 million in general fund support, $40 million in bonds. It is, if anything, a modest request. (As a comparison, while Massachusetts spent $250 per capita in academic R&D in 2002, New Hampshire and Vermont set aside $172 and $146 respectively. Maine spent $53.)

The state budget for 2007 has only about $20 million for R&D from the general fund, and a bond, if there is one, has yet to be determined. Here’s the chance for the candidates. They know Maine has become more competitive as a result of R&D spending, an outside exam shows that Maine is going the right way but not far enough and the state plan lays out a way to make progress. Any candidate could join in at this point – at the state level, by advocating for the full funding amount. Federally, by urging more opportunity for competitive grants. Or locally, through the grassroots support of an R&D bond.

It’s a sure vote-getter. Healthier fish and lasers in every pot.

Todd Benoit is the editorial page editor of the Bangor Daily News.

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