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States Lean In on R&D

Investing in technology that turns tidal energy into clean power has paid off for the state of Maine. | COURTESY OF OCEAN RENEWABLE POWER COMPANY

At the mouth of the Bay of Fundy, just off the coast of Maine, a tidal power system built and operated by the Ocean Renewable Power Company (ORPC) draws energy from currents created as 100 billion tons of water flow into and out of the bay. The system was the first commercial, grid-connected tidal power system in the United States, and ORPC expects to expand in the coming years to provide electricity to roughly 2000 homes and businesses.

The company, which estimates that it has pumped more than $25 million into the Maine economy, attributes much of its early success to the $1.75 million in loans and grants it received from the Maine Technology Institute (MTI). This publicly funded nonprofit offers early-stage capital and commercialization assistance for the development of technologies that create new products, services, and jobs in Maine. Other state legislatures have also created similar funding programs to boost their high-tech sectors and attract top talent and investment.

While local support for these programs is strong and in some cases growing, the organizations must be strategic with their resources. To ensure that these dollars are going to projects based on the soundest, most promising science, MTI and other organizations rely on AAAS's Research Competitiveness Program (RCP), which uses its nationwide network of expert reviewers to evaluate funding proposals for state-level funders in Maine, Connecticut, Rhode Island, North Carolina, and South Dakota.

Some of these programs are expanding their activities, with new funding opportunities rolling out and voters or legislators approving new financing mechanisms. This is happening despite, or in some cases because of, belt-tightening in Washington; federal R&D funding as a percentage of GDP is at its lowest levels in several decades, according to the AAAS R&D Budget and Policy Program. AAAS is active in a number of efforts to encourage lawmakers to turn this trend around and close the “innovation deficit.” In the meantime, states are doing what they can to support innovation within their own borders.

When designing their funding competitions, “states play to their strengths,” said Rieko Yajima, RCP's associate director. “They are targeting their research dollars to areas where they feel they have the best competitive edge.” RCP staff then draw from their nationwide network of reviewers whose areas of expertise match the proposals.

If reviewers do not reach consensus on a proposal, RCP staff facilitate a discussion to help them arrive at a final decision that includes suggestions to applicants for strengthening their proposals. “Going through those different opinions and coming to an agreement strengthens the review in the end. You have an opinion that is backed up by all the reviewers,” Yajima said.

Representatives from MTI and other funding programs agreed that it would be nearly impossible for them to develop a similar peer-review system on their own. They also said the confidential process provides objectivity that, along with AAAS's strong reputation, can assure voters that their dollars are being spent fairly.

This credibility has long-term benefits for awardees. Those that have received MTI funding often report that they are then able to attract further funding, said Joe Migliaccio, director of business development at MTI. Migliaccio's program at MTI invests $4 to 5.5 million per year in loans, grants, and equity to support R&D of new products or services in Maine's key technology sectors. Since 2007, MTI has also awarded $53 million in bond-backed grants through its Maine Technology Asset Fund, said Martha Bentley, the fund's program manager.

“Voters are continuing to support R&D as an economic engine in Maine,” Bentley said. For example, a 2014 referendum approved additional bonds in support of biomedical and marine research.

Another state-based funder, Connecticut Innovations, has responded directly to national trends with its Connecticut Bioscience Innovation Fund (CBIF), which opened its doors in 2014 and has awarded approximately $4.5 million to five universities and four companies, with AAAS overseeing the scientific review of applications.

“The key opinion leaders in our state saw a couple of factors coming together,” when they created the CBIF, said Margaret Cartiera, director of bioscience initiatives at Connecticut Innovations. The state has a strong concentration of pharmaceutical and medical device companies, but many were downsizing or closing their R&D units. And state officials were concerned that decreased federal funding to Connecticut universities would make them less attractive to top faculty and slow technology transfer, according to Cartiera, which is why the fund is open to universities and nonprofits as well as commercial establishments.

A funding initiative is also newly launched in North Carolina, where in 2014 the general assembly created a $3 million annual fund for “game-changing” research in several key areas at the University of North Carolina (UNC). The money will be distributed via UNC's Research Opportunities Initiative, which has contracted with AAAS to administer the peer review of the research proposals, and the first set of recipients will be announced in the coming weeks.

Christopher Brown, vice president for research and graduate education at the University of North Carolina, noted that UNC continues to pull in research dollars from federal agencies. But, he said that the new initiative reflects legislators' growing appreciation of the importance of R&D to the state's economic growth, and understanding that supporting UNC researchers will help position them to attract other federal or industry funding.


Kathy Wren

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