There is a way to ensure more young, educated people stay in Maine. It will require greater collaboration between researchers and entrepreneurs.

Maine is widely known as a small pond, which is true when compared to places like Massachusetts, New York City and Washington D.C. But Maine actually is a series of small ponds, with no or weak bridges connecting them.

For instance, Maine has a number of research institutions that compete for research grant funding, and work with undergraduate and graduate students, post-docs, and junior and senior faculty. These people tend to be young, smart, well-educated, innovative and capable — just what Maine needs to thrive.

But our research ponds are separate. Take marine resources. Maine has:

  • the Bigelow Laboratory, a world class oceanography facility that focuses on key ocean processes,
  • the University of Maine System with a marine center that focuses on aquaculture and food production,
  • the Gulf of Maine Research Institute that has community, education and research as its bases, and
  • the Downeast Institute for Applied Marine Research and Education.

Another example is in the medical field. We have a whole set of outstanding medical-related research institutions:

  • the Jackson Laboratory, which pursues biomedical research,
  • the Maine Medical Center Research Institute, which supports and encourages a broad spectrum of research, and
  • Eastern Maine Heathcare Systems, which pursues clinical and cancer research.

Many of these and others are part of the Maine IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence led by the Mt. Desert Island Biological Laboratory.

Then there is the pond system of entrepreneurialism and economic development. Again Maine has tremendous resources, with groups such as:

  • Coastal Enterprises Inc.,
  • the Maine Technology Institute,
  • the University of Maine System’s Professional and Graduate Center Initiative,
  • Envision Maine, and
  • the Maine State Workforce Investment Board providing planning and policy work.

The Maine STEM Council proposes that Maine build stronger and more durable connections between these pond systems by creating a Maine Academy of Science and Innovation. Bring science, technology, engineering and mathematics-related education and research together with economic development and innovation. Academies of sciences exist in 48 other states and large cities across the country. Maine is a notable exception.

The mission of the Maine Academy of Sciences and Innovation would be to keep highly trained and educated young people in Maine and, with them, create more economic opportunity for all Mainers.

The goals would be to grow undergraduate and graduate research programs at public and private institutions and organizations in Maine through communication, networking and support, and to broaden the base of scientific research to include entrepreneurialism.

One new feature would be to ensure business education overlaps with scientific research. Currently, graduate students and post-docs labor under senior researchers to learn techniques and scientific habits of mind. Combining research skills with basic business planning and entrepreneurship — and allowing it to count as part of the graduate and post-doctoral requirements — would be a unique and cutting-edge development.

Establishing communications or mentorships among senior and junior scientists and business innovators could pay dividends for Maine.

There is a need for cross-pollination between various sciences and imagining ways to monetize scientific research. For example, a researcher skilled in growing algae at Bigelow Labs probably doesn’t know how to connect to the aquaculture industry or what its needs may be. Her cultures may be valuable in biopharmaceuticals, but there are no mechanisms in place to promote that collaboration.

The Maine Academy of Science and Innovation could broker these connections.

Young, educated scientists and engineers in Maine need jobs and a relationship-based support system to improve their odds of staying in Maine. An enduring support system could have components that address work-life balance, networking skills, learning how to make the most of a post-doc position, and gaining leadership skills.

Certainly there is value in basic research, just as there is value in applied research. The council proposes the development of an environment that is conducive to supporting creative and innovative people interested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, so they stay here and are gainfully employed. A Maine Academy of Science and Innovation could become a bridge builder to a brighter future for Maine.

Tom Keller is executive director of the Maine STEM Council, which is dedicated to improving science, technology, engineering and mathematics education policy and workforce development.