Legislators in support of increasing research and development funding at the University of Maine got about two-thirds of the way there with a bill, LD 1064, sponsored by Rep. Sean Faircloth of Bangor and co-sponsored by Republicans and Democrats. But in difficult budget times, it is not enough to present a valuable idea that brings needed stability to this underfunded investment in Maine’s future. Lawmakers also must come up with a way to fund it.
The bill takes a farsighted approach to R&D funding, beginning in fiscal year 2008-09, by requiring that 1 percent of General Fund revenue be put toward this worthy cause. That comes out to about $30 million. By 2018-19, LD 1064 would have Maine spending at least 3 percent of General Fund revenues on R&D, unless the governor submits a report explaining why the figure is lower.
The money would go through the Maine Economic Improvement Fund, which then channels it to programs in such areas as biotechnology, aquaculture, composites, information technology and precision manufacturing at the University of Maine and the University of Southern Maine. In 2006, according to a recent MEIF report, the universities used $14.5 million in state money to leverage contracts and grants worth $42.7 million in additional funding, supporting 717 full-time equivalent jobs. Beyond the value of the jobs is the industrial infrastructure the funding provides Maine – new fields and new approaches to traditional fields are possible with this money and, most important, long-term research would be possible.
At a recent hearing for LD 1064, Tim Hodgdon of Hodgdon Yachts sent testimony from Shanghai, China, describing how UMaine had helped his company develop technology he was marketing there. “Staying competitive and becoming a world technology leader can happen only through research and development,” he wrote, “and UMaine provides real and marketable development opportunities.”
It does, and could do much more with more funding in amounts that could be counted on. But for money to be available for R&D, lawmakers must cut somewhere else, and supporters of this valuable funding would help their cause if they identified where to start cutting. Perhaps other subsidies for economic growth don’t have the same level of return as MEIF or university health care experts might review the state’s human-services funding and find savings there that could be used for R&D.
The Brookings Institution report, “Charting Maine’s Future,” calls this strategy “cut to invest,” and it seems particularly well-suited for an investment with such a clear track record of return. It is worth noting that UMaine itself has instituted a competitive grant process, depending on new R&D funding, that encourages small projects, expands on midlevel projects to include clear benefits to Maine’s economy and focuses large grants on only a few areas, where Maine shows promise of becoming a world leader. It’s a very difficult standard, demanding high levels of performance from university researchers.
Maine’s chronically low ranking in university R&D and its need for business innovation make LD 1064 an important bill. But it is meaningless without funding, making it essential for lawmakers to raise their own performance and include a funding source for this bill.