April 09, 2020

Panel: Maine R&D efforts need to grow

AUGUSTA – Maine needs to invest more in research and development but has been doing a good job with the funds it has appropriated over the last five years. That is the assessment of a group of professors hired by the state to review its efforts.

“You have gone from very little to over $200 million in the last several years,” professor Michael Luger of the University of North Carolina told lawmakers last week. “We recognize the sacrifice it has been for the state; it is a very significant investment.”

Luger and professor Brent Lane led a team that reviewed Maine’s R&D investments for the five-year period from 2000 to 2005. They told members of the Legislature’s Joint Select Committee on Research, Economic Development & the Innovative Economy last week that they still were completing their report, but shared much of it with the panel.

“Two hundred and four million dollars in my economy, your economy, anybody’s economy, is a lot of money,” Lane said. “You have made a substantial commitment to R&D. Yes, other states are making larger commitments, but you in Maine have made a substantial commitment.”

The largest investments, 76 percent of the funds, were focused on developing the R&D capacity of the state. Those funds were invested in the University of Maine System, The Jackson Laboratory and other nonprofit research organizations.

“And that is appropriate because you need to build capacity,” Lane said.

The remainder went for commercialization projects such as those funded by the Maine Technology Institute. Last month MTI awarded 23 seed grants to companies across the state, ranging from a grant to Mitokine Bioscience LLC in Hancock for research and development activities leading to the commercialization of its new treatment of diabetes to an award to Seaport Technologies Inc. in York to hire an attorney to complete patent filings for a camera and underwater lighting system that allows boaters to see under and around their vessel.

Maine has what the team described as a “unique” mix of R&D resources. In most states, they said, the industrial private sector is the largest source of R&D investments, followed by universities and nonprofit labs.

“The amount of investment by nonprofits is just extraordinary,” Lane said. “Since 1999 the not-for-profits are strong and getting stronger, your academics are strengthening, but they started from a weak position, and your industrial base, your R&D, was weak and is getting weaker.”

Luger said Maine is only behind Massachusetts and the District of Columbia in its per capita investment in R&D through not-for-profit institutions. He said from 2004 to 2005, the state went from sixth to third in the national rankings.

Lane said Maine started at 51st place in the nation in 1999 for academic research, and has moved up to 49th in 2005. He said that slow growth is in part due to the substantial investments other states have made in academic research efforts.

As for the private sector, the professors said Maine is at the bottom of the list. They said there are many reasons, including the number of “mature industries” like the paper industry that are not doing a lot of research.

“It seems to me that a lot of these companies we are talking about used to be owned and based here in Maine,” said Rep. Thomas Watson, D-Bath.

“That is no longer the case, and they may be doing research, but at a location in another state.”

Lane said the private sector research may be understated because of the methodology the federal government uses to measure industrial research. He said a small firm may “never make the radar screen” like a large company and Maine is mostly small companies.

Luger stressed that Maine, as a small state, has to do everything it can to maximize its research efforts. He said cooperation between schools and not-for-profits is crucial to the future as is targeting state resources.

“You can’t mandate cooperation in legislation. You can’t mandate it,” he said, “but you can encourage cooperation.”

Luger said while it made sense to “spread around” the research money across the state, it still needs to be focused on what it will return. He said too many states have made the mistake of distributing research funds on a political basis, not on what will reap the most benefits for the state as a whole.

“Some of what we have done is a mile wide and an inch deep,” Rep. Christopher Rector, R-Thomaston said. “And I think we suffer because of that.”

The professors suggested that the state consider establishing a “research authority” that would assess R&D proposals and target them to provide the best return to the taxpayers.

Rep. Emily Cain, D-Orono, the House co-chair of the panel, said that the proposal would help provide “continuity” because term limits have resulted in lawmakers forgetting about priorities set over a long time frame.

The Senate co-chair of the panel, Sen. Lynn Bromley, D-South Portland, agreed. “We will be looking at recommending some sort of ongoing research authority,” she said. “Let’s face it: People learn and leave, and we are in a retooling mode all the time, and this is just too important not to sustain for the long-term good of the state.”

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