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Discovery December 1998

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by Tom McCoy

Alas, the 1999 Legislature has already begun in earnest, at least regarding the Montana University Systems (MUS) perennial battle to achieve an appropriation for matching funds for federal grants. Acquiring matching funds from the Legislature is one of MSU's highest priorities this year.

What are our actual needs? Although the majority of MSU's grants and contracts do not require a match, a significant number of them do. The Experimental Programs to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) alone require a match of approximately $6 million for the entire system. These programs have been instrumental in improving MSU's academic infrastructure and in enhancing our competitiveness.

In addition,matching funds are required for programs such as the Center for Biofilm Engineering and the Montana Manufacturing Extension Center. Finally,matching funds are frequently required for equipment grants like those that purchased a FACS (fluorescence activated cell sorter) and a confocal microscope. The ability to use this kind of equipment helps our students compete for high-tech jobs or apply to graduate school. In total, we need at least $10 million of matching funds per year.

So what is the strategy for 1999? The issue is really twofold. One is the need for a permanent source of matching funds in order to convince the federal agencies that Montana is truly interested in a state-federal partnership when it comes to funding science and technology. The other is the need for a permanent advisory group that could develop and implement a statewide science and technology plan. A means of addressing these issues has been proposed by the Governors Research and Development Task Force. This group recommended establishing a Research and Commercialization Commission(RCC) and creating a permanent endowment that would be used, in part, to provide matching funds.

These recommendations have been incorporated into the Governors "Jobs and Income" plan for the 1999 Legislature. Given the breadth of the plan,the legislative leadership decided to form a 10-member committee to provide the leadership with a bill or bills addressing the "Jobs and Income"plan. Speaker of the House John Mercer has indicated that he would like to deal with the "Jobs and Income" plan the first weeks of the session.

In brief, the major component of the legislation would create an endowment that would be used to fund MUS matches as well as provide some funding assistance for small businesses in pursuit of SBIR funding or incubator development. The source of funds for the endowment would be a hybrid, so that the partisan disagreement that occurred with the 1997 "Today and Tomorrow" plan could be avoided.

The proposal includes setting up an endowment within the Coal Trust. However, only about half of the endowment would come from setting aside current principal inside the trust. The remainder would come from placing a portion of the annual tax collected into the endowment. In addition, the endowment would include funds from the capital gains windfall from the sale of Montana Power plants, from a portion of the tobacco settlement (possibly earmarked for matches for biomedical research, e.g. the NIH IDeA awards) and a small portion of the proposed FY0001 surplus.

In addition,the Legislature would establish a Research and Commercialization Commission appointed by the Governor. The RCC would include private-sector members who are research leaders of technology companies, legislators, and the research vice presidents from MSU and UM. The RCC would be expected to develop and implement a research and development/science and technology plan for Montana, and it would be responsible for allocating funds from the endowment (the majority would be earmarked for MUS matching funds for federal research grants).

We have identified several legislators who are willing to support match funding and the RCC concept. An important session was held last month with six Montana legislators who attended the National EPSCoR conference (Mary Roloff and Gary Strobel deserve special recognition for arranging such good representation at this and other meetings). Three of the legislators at theEPSCoR conference were appointed to the Select Committee on Jobs and Income and are supporting the RCC concept there. In addition, we have legislators who are going on the road with Cathy Conover and me to sell the RCC concept during December. The University of Montana is also involved in these efforts.

Our sincere hope is that the RCC concept can be approved, either as a part of the"Jobs and Income" plan or as a separate bill early in the session.However, what if the whole Research and Commercialization Commission and Endowment portion of the "Jobs and Income" plan fails? The Governor initially placed $10 million for the biennium into the MUS budget for research matches. However, the Commissioner of Higher Education has already reduced the amount to $6 million. We will diligently strive to keep a minimum of $6 million in the MUS budget pending the outcome of the Governors "Jobs and Income" plan.

Tom McCoy is MSU Vice President for Research, Creativity and Technology Transfer

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