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States Building R&D Capacity Through Endowed Faculty Positions

May 03, 2004

Studies have shown a strong correlation between high-wage economic growth and university research activity. Examination of nearly every strong regional technology center across the country will reveal at least one research university within its boundaries. As a result, many state and local technology-based economic development (TBED) efforts strive to increase the quantity and quality of university R&D undertaken within their boundaries.

One need look no further than the local cineplex to see an analogy for the rationale of one particular TBED strategy. Hollywood knows adding a well known actor to a movie's lineup guarantees some level of ticket sales at the box office. Similarly, many state and local TBED programs are financially supporting the recruitment and retention of exceptional academic researchers through endowed chairs, faculty positions or eminent scholars.

Federal research grants, industrial R&D collaborations, exceptional graduate students and faculty, scientific community awareness, and patent filings are among the benefits a university or college expects to gain by enticing a single elite academic researcher to its campus. Such world class researchers can spark economic growth through enabling the creation and commercialization of new technology, attracting new businesses, forming clusters and strengthening existing tech companies by encouraging additional investment.

For example, to compete for a larger share of federal and foundation research funds, attract talented faculty and students and foster new company-industry relationships, the Georgia Research Alliance (GRA) created an Eminent Scholars program several years ago as the "hub" of its investment strategy. Through these investments, GRA has recruited more than 40 eminent scholars, predominantly focused in advanced communications and biosciences, to six Georgia universities to lead research programs with a high potential to impact economic development. GRA's effort is yielding results too: for every state dollar invested in eminent scholars, the state sees a $4 to $6 jump in federal R&D funding.

The debate to support endowed chairs is currently underway in Missouri's state legislature as well. Last month, HB 1671 passed the House, committing funding to endowed chair programs beginning in FY 2007. House Speaker Catherine Hannaway referenced the successes of previous programs that helped the University of Missouri recruit world-class faculty and achieve new levels of research through increased federal and private support. HB 1671 is intended to expand upon those programs and requires:

  • A non-state commitment of a $2 million endowment or $100,000 per year for 20 years; and,
  • A university and state commitment of $100,000 per year for 20 years.

Last week, however, a committee in the Missouri State Senate removed the provision from the broader economic development bill. The Kansas City Star reports opponents of the endowed chairs were concerned the researchers in key life science fields would attract other funding that "could finance research involving abortion, stem cells or human cloning." The bill is being considered by the full Senate.

Oklahoma and Florida also are working on legislation to eliminate the backlog of state funding for endowed chairs. Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry recently signed HB 1904 to authorize a bond issue to match donations as part of his Economic Development Generating Excellence (EDGE) initiative (see the March 29, 2004, issue of the Digest). Presently, $52 million in private donations is waiting for matching funds.

Yielding to pressure from private donors threatening to demand returns or vowing not to commit more money, state legislators in Florida have agreed to eliminate the entire backlog of $186 million to match donations, reports the St. Petersburg Times. Three chairs totaling $13 million at the University of South Florida have been held up due to the backlog, as well as funding for scholarships and research programs. Under Florida state law requiring the state to match donations above a certain amount, the state owes $112.7 million to 11 public universities and $73.2 million to 28 community colleges.

In South Carolina, Clemson University will tap into state lottery funds set aside last year by the General Assembly for an endowed chair program. BMW Manufacturing Corp. pledged $10 million with another $5 million to be raised by suppliers for the state to match. Clemson will use the funds to recruit engineers and scientists to the school’s new graduate program in automotive systems integration.

While many states are increasing endowed chair programs, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson vetoed funding for endowed chairs in March, cutting $6 million from programs at the University of New Mexico, New Mexico Tech and New Mexico State University. An Albuquerque Tribune story noted the cuts were made in an effort to balance the state budget. The state supports its universities but feels they need to do a better job of matching state funds, the newspaper reported.

Missouri HB 1671 is available through the Missouri House of Representatives at: http://www.house.state.mo.us/bills041/bills/hb1671.htm