Sunday, August 10, 2008

SSTI Weekly Digest: Florida Legislature Injects Itself into Centers of Excellence Program, Redirects Funding

A recent article from SSTI Weekly Digest offers food for thought on recent state budget decisions:

How should states determine the focus and location of significant investments into academic research? The process can easily become politicized when more than one research institution, sizable metropolitan area or major industry exist in the state. On occasion, geographic and political influences trump more rational factors, resulting in the “peanut butter effect” of dollars and activities being spread evenly across a state or across institutions at the possible detriment to having a meaningful impact.

Similarly, as appears to be the case recently in Florida, the investment recommendations of an independent scientific advisory board can be overruled by legislative action. In Florida's case, the legislature redirected $65 million of funding planned for seven new university-based Centers of Excellence to just two centers, only one of which was recommended by the advisory board in its report to Governor Charlie Crist earlier this year. Florida legislators recently approved $87 million for the State University System’s Centers of Excellence in FY 2009. Approximately $22 million will be distributed among nine, older centers created in earlier funding cycles. The $65 million balance will support two new centers intended to expand the state's research capacity in the energy and aerospace industries. Both new centers represent new collaborations between several research institutions and were described as helping to offset the impending employment loss resulting from the end of NASA’s space shuttle program. The move drew criticism, however, from members of the Florida Technology Research and Scholarship Board (FTRSB), which would ordinarily oversee the establishment of new centers instead of the legislature.

Most of the funding will support the Florida Energy Systems Consortium, part of the state’s Energy Diversity Package included in the budget for the 2008-2009 fiscal year (see the June 18, 2008 issue of the SSTI Weekly Digest). The state will invest $50 million in the University of Florida-led project, which will involve all of the state’s universities. UF will receive $15 million of that funding, while four other institutions located across the state will each receive $8.75 million -- Florida State University (FSU), the University of South Florida, the University of Central Florida and Florida Atlantic University. The remaining funds will be allocated amongst the state’s other schools. Consortium research will focus on the development of innovative energy systems that could lead to practical alternative energy strategies, improved energy efficiency and expanded economic development for the state.

The Florida Center for Advanced Aero-Propulsion (FCAAP) will receive $14.8 million to enhance the efficiency of commercial and military aircraft. Florida State University will lead the collaboration and receive up to $6 million of the funding. Other participating institutions include Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, the University of Central Florida and the University of Florida. FSU researchers believe that the center could help produce the next generation of lighter aircraft and spacecraft, which could keep Florida at the forefront of aerospace research and industry following the end of the space shuttle program in 2010.

Aerospace companies currently employ about 83,000 workers in Florida and have an estimated $100 billion impact on the state economy. Earlier this year, a NASA report estimated that as many as 10,000 contractor jobs could be lost at spaceflight centers across the country by the time the shuttle program ceases operation (see the April 23, 2008 issue of the Digest). Kennedy Space Center expects to lose as much as 80 percent of its workforce in the next two to three years. State officials hope that the aero-propulsion center will help boost the state’s aerospace industry, which, in addition to the space shuttle’s looming demise, has an aging aerospace workforce. FCAAP will provide a way to organize the state’s research efforts and train a new generation of aerospace workers.

For more information on FCAAP, visit: May, FTRSB Chair Joseph Lacher voiced his objection to the legislature’s funding of the two centers. FTRSB was established in 2006 to make all decisions regarding the creation of new Centers of Excellence. In April, the board submitted seven new centers to the governor after months of reviewing applications, including the Center for Advance Aero-Propulsion but not the Energy Systems Consortium. In a letter sent to the board of governors, Lacher asked Gov. Crist to employ a line-item veto on the pertinent sections of the General Appropriations bill and reserve the decision for the board. Alternatively, Lacher suggested that the governor disband the board because it was no longer needed. However, the funding remained in the budget and, as of now, the FTRSB still exists.

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