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UND: To seed or not to seed

Research money could be a political hot potato tonight

The Grand Forks City Council will consider tonight whether to keep in the mayor's 2002 budget a provision to continue city support of UND's "Faculty Research Seed Program," which helps university scientists fund projects.

The idea is nothing new; in fact, the city has allocated a total of $300,000 out of past city budgets for the program.

Much of that money has already been drawn down -- after UND and other sources secured enough in matching funds -- and disbursed to faculty to pay for materials, supplies and workers needed to conduct various experiments.

The proposed 2002 city budget now calls for an additional $200,000 to be set aside for UND research. But a number of council members are reluctant to support the new allocation.

Ward 3 representative Tim Burke questions whether investing in the program will offer the best return on the city's dollar and whether it's the city's role to be funding research at all.

"Research is the university's business," Burke said. "If there's any reason that the city should get involved, it should be because there's some economic development involved."

 

Return

Since the city has been setting aside money for UND research, about $540,000 ($140,000 of city money) has been disbursed to 18 scientists, and so far, Burke says, he's seen no economic development spin-offs as a result of it.

But UND Professor William Sheridan, who helped launch the research seed money program in 1998, said the money hasn't been wasted in that over half of it has been used to pay the salaries and benefits of students who carry out the experiments.

It also works to keep top-notch researchers at UND pursuing experiments and garnering federal grants and to create exposure for the school.

The 18 UND researchers who have received seed money have pledged to request more than $11 million to augment their project funding -- money that would be much harder to secure if not for the city's financial support.

Council member Eliot Glassheim, a staunch supporter of the seed money program, said it would be unwise to discount the value that UND researchers and scientists provide the community in the form of economic development.

" The future economy is going to be knowledge based," Glassheim said. "The university is going to be central to the growth and development of Grand Forks, so I think it's smart for us to invest a relatively small amount in the research and knowledge that is generated at UND."

Foundation help

Ultra-conservative council member Terry Bjerke says he has a list of cuts for the mayor's budget that he will propose tonight. And one of his targets is the UND seed money.

Bjerke sides with Burke in his belief that the city should not take such an active part in funding science experiments at UND. He called on others such as the UND Alumni Association and Foundation to do more.

"The foundation has assets of well over $100 million, and UND still comes and asks city taxpayers to fund their research," Bjerke said.

The foundation, however, has been a big part of the development of the seed money program, especially in the area of putting up match money to unlock funds held by the city. Since the program started, the foundation and UND's administration have paid out a combined $700,000 in matching funds.

Dave Miedema, executive vice president of the independent and nonprofit UND Alumni Association and Foundation, said that kind of support can be expected in the future as long as UND continues to rank faculty research as one of its higher priorities.

In response to Bjerke's claim about the foundation's assets, Miedema said his organization does not have an unlimited budget. Much of its assets are tied up in trust accounts, he said, and the foundation must work with UND's administration to carefully prioritize what needs get the funding.

A compromise

Ward 4 council member Hal Gershman has expressed support for the seed money program in the past. His enthusiasm, however, has been tempered a bit recently because UND is asking for more money in next year's budget before all of its previous allocations have been drawn down. There is still about $60,000 in seed program funding sitting in city coffers waiting to be matched by UND.

Gershman said he plans to make a motion tonight not to allocate $200,000 in 2002, but to instead add $140,000 to what is still held by the city.

Glassheim, however, said he would prefer that the entire $200,000 allocation be approved, but if the council grants a lesser amount, it would be better than nothing.

"As long as we have a significant portion in there, I could accept a compromise -- that might be possible," Glassheim said.

Sheridan said that he may testify before the council tonight and ask them to support the full $200,000 allocation. He said he has the expressed assurance of UND's administration that the school will do all it can to match the $60,000 in unreleased money this fall, in addition to the required match for the new $200,000 in 2002.

But Sheridan added he also could live with the idea outlined by Gershman, saying that partial funding would be "more preferred" than no funding at all.

Source: Grand Forks Herald July 18, 2001