BAR HARBOR – When Maine legislators reconvene in Augusta on Tuesday, they will take up some important unfinished business. They will vote on five bond proposals that would fund highway projects, drinking water and wastewater infrastructure, higher education, land preservation and research and development.
Mainers are prudent to ask why their government should borrow up to $95 million in these challenging economic times. Most of us have had to tighten our budgets, and we expect the state to do the same.
But tightening a budget doesn’t mean stopping all spending. Even in a slow economy — especially in a slow economy — families and governments must make strategic investments in the future to ensure that better days will lie ahead.
Smart investment in research and development has long proven to be a reliable stimulant of economic development. Maine’s business community knows this. That’s why the state’s largest chambers of commerce are supporting the bond package, including the $20 million proposed for research and development investment.
Business leaders know that research and development generates ideas and technologies that lead to new or improved products and services. Think smartphones, tablet computers, hybrid vehicles, biofuels, DNA sequencers, GPS systems, new medications and other inventions of recent years.
These innovations have not only improved our health, productivity and quality of life, but have also created new companies and high-paying jobs. All of these innovations were born of R&D at companies, universities and research institutions.
In Maine, we have seen firsthand the economic impact of R&D investments.
For example, The Jackson Laboratory, a nonprofit genetics research institution in Bar Harbor, has created hundreds of new jobs in the last decade, increasing its work force to 1,400. Much of this growth is due directly to previous state R&D bond funds awarded to the laboratory through the competitive award process.
With support from state investment, we have added new research buildings, a data center and vital technical equipment. We are grateful for the state’s investments, and for the innovations and jobs they have created.
In 2007, Maine voters approved $50 million in R&D bonds, and in 2010 an additional $3 million was approved. The Legislature directed the Maine Technology Institute to administer these funds through a competitive award process and to require a matching investment for each project.
The Maine Technology Institute reports that since 2008, about $53 million has been awarded to fund 35 projects in three competitive rounds. These projects have created 289.5 new jobs and preserved another 303.
They have generated $17.1 million in sales and licensing revenue, facilitated $100.7 million in new grants and contracts from non-state government sources, and drawn $29.4 million in debt and equity investments from private sources.
Nineteen of the projects have led to the creation of new products or services. Fifteen projects have resulted in invention disclosures, licenses, intellectual property protections and copyrights.
A new R&D bond this year would spark more of this economic activity while helping Maine achieve its goals for 2015, as stated in the 2010 Science & Technology Action Plan:
• Increase Maine’s total R&D activity to $1.4 billion.
• Increase Maine’s employment in innovation sectors by 5,400 to a total of 60,000.
• Increase per capita income to $42,000 from the 2008 level of $35,381.
The bonds are up for a legislative vote at a critical time because the state is lagging nationally and internationally in science and technology.
In the United States, Maine ranks 37th in the percentage of scientists and engineers in the work force and 50th in producing science and engineering graduate students, according to the National Science Foundation. Maine is also 40th in the percentage of work force producing goods and services.
Although Maine’s targeted technology sectors experienced slight growth between 2010 and 2011, this growth lagged behind the nation as a whole, according to the Maine Comprehensive Research & Development Evaluation 2011.
We can do better, and we must do better. Our children will need good jobs in industries that are made sustainable and competitive by innovations in science and technology. If they don’t find jobs in Maine, they will seek them elsewhere. Passage of the state R&D bond is a clear signal that we care enough to invest in their future.
Charles E. Hewett is executive vice president and chief operating officer of The Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor.