My Turn: Alaska cannot afford ASTF

Posted: Wednesday, April 30, 2003

The Alaska Science and Technology Foundation was founded in 1988 based on the assumption it would enable Alaska to be the world leader in Arctic research. ASTF was endowed with $106 million, which was to be used to issue "entrepreneurial and teaching grants".

Obviously, these are noble purposes, which the Murkowski administration supports. The problem is the state now spends annually many more millions of dollars than it collects in revenue. The time has come to set priorities, which, incidentally, the Legislature requested of the last administration, to no avail.

In response to the governor's fiscal challenge, the departments proposed elimination of programs that go beyond the basics. Funding entrepreneurship is not an essential function of government.

Recently, there have been "My Turn" articles in the newspaper, which point out good programs that ASTF has funded over the years. These include mariculture, which the governor supports, and a project to grade lumber made in Alaska sawmills. Another excellent project is the creation of Alaska Growth Capital, which ASTF developed in partnership with Arctic Slope Regional Corporation.

But there is another side to the story. Of the 359 entrepreneurial grants listed on ASTF's web site ( $29.6 million was spent on 81 projects that are expected to generate repayments to the state. Of these 81 projects, only 29 are actually making repayments. The total amount of the payments received since the program's inception in 1988 is approximately $299,345 - not a very good return on $106 million, or even $29 million.

ASTF has approved extremely questionable projects such as $1.1 million to a UCLA professor to commercialize a radioactive waste treatment technology that was patented by the professor. Alaska does not have a radioactive waste problem and the funds were used to supplement funding the professor received from Westinghouse/Hanford. Another $17,000 was spent for a drug addict needle exchange program in Anchorage, and $197,000 was spent to investigate use of North Slope wild grass to keep Canada geese away from Anchorage; $44,299 went for a workshop for Russian nuclear plant workers; $646,620 was granted to a Maryland firm to design and develop a small satellite launch vehicle, which was never developed; $20,000 was granted to Louisiana State University to develop a plan for the University of Alaska to better transfer technology to the private sector.

ASTF has made grants all over the Western Hemisphere. It has issued grants to the U.S. Army, the National Marine Fisheries Service, and various departments of state government.

The research, applied science, and technology development sought by ASTF is available elsewhere. Banks, venture funds, private investors, the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority (AIDEA) and the Small Business Administration are more appropriate funding sources for entrepreneurs. The administration's budget focuses on functions that only state government can perform, such as permitting development and protecting public health and the environment.

The state establishes protective standards to assure clean air and water and we are mindful of the important role played by research and development in the regulatory decisions we make. Alaska will continue to depend on applied science and effective technologies for environmentally sound resource development and protecting the environment .

In better financial times this administration undoubtedly would be prepared to listen to arguments that the good programs we have all read about outweigh the bad programs listed above, and that with better management we should save ASTF. But the governor cannot justify maintaining ASTF while cutting the Longevity Bonus and other programs.

ASTF's potential results are too remote in time and the projects for which it has made grants do not warrant the continuation of the program in its current form. Moreover, AIDEA is available to fund programs that are valuable to Alaska, which ASTF might otherwise have done.

In conclusion, we appreciate the service of those Alaskans who have contributed to ASTF. We acknowledge and applaud the good programs ASTF has supported, but I would have to agree with the governor that, on balance, it is in the best interest of the state to terminate the program and use the money in the coming fiscal year to maintain core services.

Jim Clark serves as chief of staff to Gov. Murkowski.

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