December 10, 2018
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Greater Portland’s economy needs the graduate-level science program USM eliminated

Seth Koenig | BDN
Seth Koenig | BDN
University of Southern Maine physics professor Jerry LaSala speaks at a news conference Wednesday in Portland, where students and faculty voiced their opposition to layoffs at the school.

Just last week, the University of Maine System Board of Trustees voted to eliminate Greater Portland’s only graduate program in Applied Medical Sciences. But university system administrators should listen to the impassioned pleas of Greater Portland businesses, academics and research institutes and correct this tragic mistake.

If administrators are not able to fix this mistake, then a larger question looms. What new direction will they take to best serve the tax-paying businesses, medical research institutes and research scientists that call southern Maine home?

This is an urgent issue for a growing industry that is strongly underlined by the upcoming election. On Nov. 4, Maine voters are going to the polls to vote on two important bond issues that are going to impact the future of biomedical research and commercialization in the state of Maine.

Almost paradoxically, just as these bonds go to vote, the University of Maine System trustees created a hole in the center of Maine’s diagnostic and biotechnology industry that is not easily filled. The Board of Trustees and administrators should be paying attention to the results of these bond questions if they want a glimpse into the future of Maine’s economy.

With a decision of this magnitude, there were bound to be lots of unintended or ill thought-out consequences. For one, high schools in southern Maine will need a new set of graduate students to mentor them in their classes and introduce them to opportunities for advanced science study in the University of Maine System.

Ph.D. students in the Graduate School of Biomedical Science and Engineering, a consortium of the University of Southern Maine, the University of Maine, and other institutions will need to decide if they can continue their work without Portland’s Applied Medical Sciences laboratories and faculty.

USM will need to plan how the 16 students currently working toward their degree can possibly finish it if their incredible professors are no longer there. The 53 students taking courses in the program will, in part, need to find a new source of professional development training to advance their careers.

Professional scientists and laboratory technicians living and working in Maine’s cluster of biotechnology research and manufacturing will need to figure out how they can pursue a graduate degree relevant to their chosen industry.

Industry employers must address future disruptions to recruitment and retention. These disruptions might impact their ability to expand.

Clearly, this is a problem that is going to take some outside-the-box thinking and collaboration to solve.

The problem for the University of Maine System is this: If USM is not going to be a center of excellence in the advanced laboratory skills of biotechnology, immunology, toxicology, and epidemiology, who and what will fill this void?

The University of Maine System must keep in mind a lesson that its officials have, hopefully, learned on the value of adequate market research for decision-making. The university system needs to meet with business leaders, research institutes and, most importantly, its students and workers to figure out exactly what is needed to satisfy future demand and growth.

University administrators also need to reimagine how they are going to deliver that education to Southern Maine — where much of that growth will be focused — and who is going to mentor our scientists on cutting-edge laboratory techniques. USM’s Applied Medical Science program was already a bedrock of what the industry needed, including its team of brilliant professors and laboratory space within USM’s gleaming new science building.

Now is the time for the bioscience industry in Maine to sit down and find workable solutions with University of Maine System administrators. However, the system cannot repeat its mistakes of the recent past and eliminate programs without seeking necessary input from the community well beforehand.

We cannot afford to wait.

Bryan Bozsik is president of the Bioscience Association of Maine.


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