Questions Raised About “Centers of Excellence” Grants

BISMARCK, N.D.

A panel endorsed six “centers of excellence” stipends to four North Dakota colleges despite questions about whether some of the $10 million in grants should be allocated by the Legislature itself.

Some of the grants provide more money for projects that received excellence grants earlier, said Sen. Bob Stenehjem, R-Bismarck, the Senate majority leader. During a state Emergency Commission review of the projects Friday, Stenehjem voted against all six grants.

The excellence program is intended to provide startup money for projects at North Dakota’s colleges that have commercial potential, rather than serve as a continuing source of funds, Stenehjem said.

Gov. John Hoeven, the Emergency Commission’s chairman, said it makes sense to give more grants to a project as it continues to develop. Some of the projects also did not get all the money they had sought during initial grant rounds, the governor said.

“If you think about funding for virtually any new business or any project, I think you want some flexibility,” Hoeven said. “When they come in with a concept … they’re going to have some that are going to take off very well, and you’re going to want to bring some additional investment in there to keep it going.”

The grants still must be reviewed by the Legislature’s Budget Section, an interim committee that includes members of the House and Senate appropriations committees, before any money is dispensed to the colleges. The section will consider the grants Oct. 30.

North Dakota State University is seeking a $1.5 million grant to help develop different varieties of canola seed for biofuels and industrial oils, and a $2 million grant for research into improved surface coatings.

The University of North Dakota is seeking a $2.5 million grant for a medical device that could dissolve blood clots in stroke victims, and $1.5 million for an aerial drone research project. Minot State is seeking $2.1 million for a data and research center that companies may use for remote data storage.

Lake Region State College in Devils Lake wants $400,000 to develop and market equipment that can spread manure fertilizer more precisely.

Rep. Rick Berg, R-Fargo, asked about the sparse amount of private money committed to most of the projects.

Most private investment in the projects appear to be the value of goods or services the companies are providing, while the Legislature wrote a law emphasizing the importance of private money investments in the centers of excellence program, Berg said.

Dr. D.C. Coston, an NDSU vice president for agriculture and university extension, said business partners in the canola seed development project are providing their own seed research information and other support.

Monsanto Co., a St. Louis-based seed developer and agriculture technology company, made its Chilean research facility available to NDSU scientists to allow faster development of new canola seed varieties, Coston said.

Archer Daniels Midland, which began operating a new biodiesel plant near Velva this month, has also offered use of its lab there, Coston said.

“To them, that’s money,” he said.

Hoeven is chairman of the Emergency Commission. It also includes Secretary of State Al Jaeger and four legislators: Stenehjem; Rep. Rick Berg, R-Fargo, the House majority leader; Rep. Ken Svedjan, R-Grand Forks, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, and Senate Appropriations Chairman Raymon Holmberg, R-Grand Forks.

The House Appropriations vice chairman, Rep. Keith Kempenich, R-Bowman, stood in for Svedjan at Friday’s meeting.



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