Higher education board questions end of NDSU research center

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FARGO, N.D. (AP) — Some members of the North Dakota Board of Higher Education said Thursday they were taken aback by North Dakota State University's announcement to shutter a major research center, a decision that drew criticism from a former U.S. senator.

The school announced last month it had dismantled the Center for Nanoscale Science and Engineering, which at one point had more than 120 employees but started trimming staff five years ago when Congress banned earmarks, which allowed lawmakers to put money for local pet projects into spending bills.

Former North Dakota Sen. Byron Dorgan, who in eight years helped direct $140 million in federal funds to the center, said the project should pay for itself and called its demise a lack of leadership and vision.

Higher ed board member Greg Stemen, of LaMoure, said during the group's monthly meeting at NDSU that the center didn't "end in a positive manner" and questioned Kelly Rusch, NDSU's vice president for research and creative activity, whether there was strategy to deal with the expected cut in federal funds.

"I guess my concern is, I get the impression it's like the fact the financial situation changed caught us off guard," Stemen said. "It seems somewhat reactionary and as a result with it, there is some frustration and understandably so."

The project was founded in 2002. It includes three research buildings centered around a so-called "clean room," with an expensive ventilation system that allowed researchers to work on atomic projects. Its signature project was developing a paint for Navy ships that would prevent organisms like barnacles, algae and tube worms from sticking to them. The center also worked on developing a battery the size of a sugar cube that could last for several years.

University of North Dakota professor Eric Murphy, the faculty adviser to the board, said he found out about the change from reading a newspaper.

"I haven't seen much information on this flowing," Murphy said. "I didn't see anything in the last year that I was on the board of any financial problems there. All of a sudden this became a big issue."

Rusch has been in her position since 2012. She said the center had been "greatly successful," but it was costing the school more than $4 million a year and there was no other choice. She said she didn't want to tell the board that the center was operating on deficit spending.

"It did not come as a surprise. At the end of the day, the decision was made for us," Rusch said. "Prior to that, every stone was turned over to find various pathways of sustainability. Yes, the final plan led to some rifts. It was the only prudent, financially responsible pathway to walk down."

Board member Don Morton, of Fargo, said the move makes sense and said future research projects should be integrated into the "academic side of the house" so presidents can have control over them. He added there were other problems beyond earmarks.

Morton, a Microsoft executive who at one time coached the NDSU football team, interrupted Murphy while the UND professor was grilling Rusch.

"So is higher ed ... are we here to provide jobs for people or serve students?" Morton asked.

"It's part and parcel to the same mission," Murphy replied

Rusch said many of the roughly three-dozen researchers at the center are still working at the college and other assets remain intact, including the clean room. She said the technology will help recruit a professor in nanotechnology.

The center "continues to feed a lot of great things on the campus," she said.

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