Maine needs to look at UMS and make tough choices

Posted Dec. 21, 2008, at 9:33 p.m.

Gov. John Baldacci says he will propose to the Legislature a “significant” research and development bond package and a transportation bond, but won’t define significant. Please.

Spouting meaningless platitudes does nothing to solve a serious problem, and is an insult to all Mainers.

It really is a pity Maine isn’t able to meaningfully fund the University of Maine. The school has some decent researchers who are hampered by third-rate facilities. Yes, I well understand the economic reality facing the state. In the end, no one cares.

Other states (Massachusetts, Florida, North Carolina, California, to name a few) will simply take advantage of Maine inaction and continue to pour eight- and nine-figure sums into biotech research. The result will be predictable — companies will grow there (note, there is a direct relationship between government R&D spending and biotech employment) and Maine will be, as always, left behind to cut wood and go lobstering. How’s that been working out?

Bangor will never be a biotech hub like Boston or San Francisco, but it doesn’t need to be. Heck, if Bangor could attract even 10 percent of the biotech companies in San Francisco, it would be a massive coup that would turn the local economy around.

It’s clear the old model of a resource-based economy is not going to work, and a shift to a knowledge-based economy is required. This will cost money. At the end of the day, Maine needs to make some tough choices about how it allocates its scarce resources as regards to funding UMaine.

Here are three specific actions that, I believe, the university, and the state, need to critically examine.

First, the university should decide if it really needs to offer as broad a graduate program as it does. Money can be allocated more efficiently if departments whose research efforts underperform have some (or most) of their budgets shifted to departments that perform well. The Advanced Engineered Wood Composites Center and the Laboratory for Surface Science Technology come to mind.

I imagine many professors won’t like having to oversee labs, but funding foreign graduate students (how many of them stay in Maine to provide economic benefit?) in departments that produce little meaningful research is a waste of Maine taxpayer money. Providing better funding to departments that already perform well is a great way to enhance productivity and, ultimately, produce the spin-off companies that will provide enduring benefit.

Research output is, in fact, readily measurable in terms of peer-reviewed papers published and patents issued. I expect that some will object to this notion that research output can be quantified. I believe that one would find an inverse correlation between said objection and number of papers and patents.

Second, are all those campuses really necessary? I understand it won’t be popular to close some (or all) of the University of Maine System’s satellite campuses, but having seven campuses results in excessive duplication of services (how much money do seven university presidents earn?). Why does Maine, with a population of 1.3 million and an area of only 33,000 square miles, need seven University of Maine campuses when California, with a population of 36 million and an area of 163,000 square miles, gets by with 10 University of California campuses?

Finally, why are UMaine faculty unionized? The notion that UMaine faculty, the majority of whom are tenured and, thus, have lifelong job security, need the protection of a union strikes me as odd. I am a strong supporter of the union movement, but feel it to be misplaced when applied to tenured professors. The unfortunate result of the union is that removal of the possibility of dismissal for tenured faculty, coupled with little opportunity for recognition of exceptional work (in the form of salary increases), leads to a decreased incentive to perform at a high level. To be clear, there are many exceptional researchers at UMaine, but I know for a fact it is frustrating for many of them to be paid the same as colleagues who punch a clock from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.

None of these choices will be easy or popular, but something must be done if Maine hopes to ever escape its status as a poor state. Continuation of the current trajectory is assurance of a dismal economic future for all Mainers. Leadership isn’t about doing the popular thing, it’s about doing the right thing. I hope the governor and the University of Maine System chancellor can find the strength to do what the state needs.

Andrew R. Vaino is a former assistant professor of chemistry at the University of Maine. He now works as a biotech analyst at an investment bank in Newport Beach, Calif.

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