Higher education in Alaska needs to boost research and development dollars by the millions over the next five years, University of Alaska President Mark Hamilton told the lawmakers on Thursday.
In his annual report and budget request to the House and Senate Finance committees, Hamilton said every dollar invested in research would return about $6 to the state in the form of grants and other services.
"We're asking for another maintenance-level budget but I want you to consider more," Hamilton said. "Research is an industry all by itself. Research eventually will create other industries."
Hamilton called on the state to provide $2.5 million this year as the first part of a five-year plan to build research and development funding to $20 million. With a 6-to-1 return, the state would receive about $140 million from its five-year investment, Hamilton said.
The $2.5 million request for research is part of a $243 million budget request to the state. Contributions from the federal government put the entire university budget at about $704.6 million.
Hamilton said Alaska now invests about 1 percent of its gross state product on research and development, compared to the national average of about 2.7 percent.
"For Alaska to reach national levels we'd have to increase our investment by almost $500 million. That's ridiculous," Hamilton said.
He said a $140 million return would cut the gap between Alaska and the national average by almost a third.
"If I give a dollar and get $6 back, I understand that math," said Senate Finance co-chairman Gary Wilken, R-Fairbanks. But Wilken said if the state approves increased funding for the university "we expect a better university next year."
House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz, D-Anchorage, said he supports the funding request. He said unlike other states in the United States, there is very little private industry research and development in Alaska.
"That's a situation I'd like to reverse," he said. "I'd like to see more (research and development) in the state. I think that would be to everyone's benefit. Can you imagine if the oil industry was doing some of its research and development here instead of in Houston and London and wherever else they do it?"
More research on earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanos is one way to help the university and the state, said Rep. David Guttenberg, R-Fairbanks.
"(U.S. Sen. Ted) Stevens is trying to get money for an advanced system," Guttenberg said. "The university has people in the field increasing surveillance and awareness of all those things. It's very important for this state."
Brendan P. Kelly, dean of the school of arts and sciences at the University of Alaska Southeast, said UAS has worked to increase its research capabilities over the last eight years by upgrading facilities.
He said crab biology research is an example of how the university can work with industry to help Alaska's economy. Another program that monitors weather and snow conditions at Eaglecrest Ski Area in Douglas also serves as a direct public benefit, he said.
Timothy Inklebarger can be reached at email@example.com.