Building Maine’s economy is a daunting task. For too many years, we have been satisfied with lethargic growth. Working at the legislature as Chairman of the Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee, I have grown impatient with the fits and starts of our growth strategy, and disappointed when Maine slides into recession for longer than the rest of the nation.
There are many reasons for Maine’s historic failure to perform economically including higher than average taxes, endless regulation that stifles innovation, and, perhaps most importantly, no long-range plan of a consistent vision to bring us out of this recession turned depression.
The newly Republican Legislature has begun to reverse some of Maine’s poor economic climate. We have passed the largest tax cut in Maine history, reformed workers’ compensation for the first time in over 20 years, relieved the burdens of unnecessary regulation, and made it less expensive to purchase health insurance for small employers and sole proprietors.
Our reforms have been market-based and ambitious, and yet, we still have not completed our work. Part of strengthening Maine’s economy is steady, consistent investment in Maine future economy. A key part of that is research and development funding through Maine Technology
Asset Fund. Our goal, as the federal EPSCoR Programs lays it out should be “to strengthen research and education in science and engineering throughout [Maine],” and “to activate … regional collaborations among academic, government and private sector stakeholders that advance scientific research, promote innovation and provide multiple societal benefits.”
Research and development is not about some esoteric investment in test tubes and unpronounceable lab equipment, it is about learning how to transform our industrial age, natural resource economy into a modern natural resource economy. How do we use our forestry products to create rocket fuel; to build wooden bridges made of composites that are stronger than steel; to strengthen the output of our blueberry crops; to protect our fisheries; or, to grow better potatoes? And yes, also to do those things which to some seem foreign and merely aspirational, such as the work done on the human genome at Jackson labs and the University of New England to lead us to a cure for cancer.
When the legislature returns May 15, we will have the opportunity to send Maine voters a $20 million bond proposal for research and development. This critical investment will assist in the development and commercialization of projects to boost economic development and create jobs throughout the state. This investment will be awarded to recipients that represent all aspects of Maine’s economy through a highly competitive process administered by the Maine Technology Institute through the Maine Technology Asset Fund.
Furthermore, research and development funds through the Maine Technology Asset Fund require a match, so a $20 million investment creates a minimum of $40 million in spending.
Since 2007, 35 research and development awards have created or preserved more than 850 high-paying jobs in Maine. These awards have lead to significant new grant and contract funds, increased sales and licensing revenue, and numerous intellectual property protections and copyrights.
Some of the most exciting work created through research and development investment has occurred at our local colleges and our university system. These institutions have seen explosive growth in the number of research-active faculty, as well as significant investments in building projects and facilities to help aid this exciting work. This work helps facilitate the transfer of innovative faculty and student research in commercialization of products and services that help Maine and the world.
Investments in research and development can spur not only new ideas, new products and new technologies, but can increase Maine’s talent pool, economic bottom line and its success in national and global markets.
Given the struggles of our once strong manufacturing base, our economy increasingly grows dependent on innovation. Staying ahead of the curve is one of the biggest challenges facing our economy. States with a track record of consistent investment are seeing results.
The last major investment made by the state in research and development occurred five years ago. Since then, Maine has fallen woefully behind by investing only one-third of the U.S. average and one-sixth of the New England average. At the end of 2011, Maine ranked 50th in producing science and engineering graduate students. This is not a record Maine should be proud of.
We can and must do better. Part of transforming Maine’s economy is to make sure government gets out of the way: to lower taxes, decrease needless regulation, and lower fixed costs in energy, health care and workers’ compensation. But just as important is steady, predictable investment in Maine’s future through annual bond appropriations for research and development. It is my sincere hope that my colleagues will support the research and development bond and move Maine forward.
Sen. Christopher Rector is serving his second term in the Maine Senate, having served three terms in the House of Representatives. He serves as Chairman of the Joint Standing Committee on Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development, and also serves on the Joint Standing Committee on Energy, Utilities and Technology.