Higher ed plan also could aid homeland security

Monday, May 7, 2007

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- When House members vote this week on Gov. Matt Blunt's plan to take $350 million from the state's student loan authority, they will be deciding on more than just a college construction plan.

Some of the money could be spent to try to lure a Department of Homeland Security laboratory to research dangerous animal diseases. And some of it could help train future employees for a Missouri-based defense and space contractor.

Those are just two of the underpublicized projects that could be financed through $15 million of former student loan agency money that would be siphoned through the Missouri Technology Corp.

The general mystery surrounding those projects -- or misunderstanding, as project supporters might say -- could lead to an effort in the House to try to restrict or eliminate that money.

The not-for-profit Missouri Technology Corp. was created under a 1994 state law to foster teamwork between universities and businesses, particularly emphasizing research in the life sciences and other high-tech areas. One of its goals is to help channel research discoveries into commercial products.

Blunt's higher education initiative would require the student loan agency to pay $350 million to the state over six years. Lawmakers could spend the money only on college construction and the Missouri Technology Corp.

A separate budget bill lists 16 specific projects to be funded through the technology corporation.

For example, $3.3 million could be used as enticements to get the federal government to locate its Bioenergy Research Center in St. Louis or its National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility in Columbia.

The University of Missouri announced a week ago that its Columbia site was one of 17 national finalists for the animal disease research center. Officials from the Department of Homeland Security plan to visit the site Thursday and Friday.

But Missouri officials fear the university's free land may not be rich enough to compete with some of the sweet deals offered by other states. Thus comes the attempt to tap into the money from the state's student loan authority.

"Other states have put together funding packages to help make their proposals more attractive. This is Missouri's effort to do the same. We're keeping up with the Joneses," said Rob Monsees, a former Blunt staff member who now is the executive director of the Missouri Technology Corp.

The lab, which would replace an aging island facility off the coast of New York, is projected to cost $450 million to build, employ about 250 scientists and would potentially provide a boost to the University of Missouri's agricultural research efforts.

Other projects to be funded through Monsees' group are less concrete at this point.

For example, the legislation would direct $200,000 for a Missouri Power Resource Center in Joplin, a collaborative effort among several universities targeted to aid local companies such as EaglePicher Technologies LLC. The company makes batteries and power supplies for missiles, satellite systems and other Defense Department and space industry contractors.

The sponsor of Blunt's legislation, Sen. Gary Nodler, R-Joplin, says his hometown project "represents a very important potential for the state of Missouri."

EaglePicher's vice president for human resources, Creed Jones, said the company could supply some of its doctoral degree scientists as instructors for university students or could help steer a curriculum tailored toward the types of job skills it seeks in employees.

But exactly what the project would entail is unclear. The $200,000 would be for planning and development.

"It's still in such an early formation stage it's just kind of been a concept thrown out there," Jones said, "and there haven't been many meetings on it yet."

If some of the Missouri Technology Corp. projects don't pan out, they may not ever be funded. That's because the budget bill includes language stating that "100 percent (spending) flexibility is allowed between each project."

The squishiness of the appropriation is part of what's troubling to opponents of embryonic stem-cell research, who fear the Missouri Technology Corp. could end up doing whatever it wants with the money.

The Missouri Catholic Conference doesn't want any money going to the technology corporation -- even if there's nothing specifically earmarked for human embryonic research. The Catholic Conference notes that the chairman of the Missouri Technology Corp. board is Donn Rubin, who also was chairman of the Missouri Coalition of Lifesaving Cures, which led last year's successful ballot initiative to engrave the right to conduct stem cell research into the state constitution.

"We're going to oppose them getting $15 million, no matter what," said Larry Weber, executive director of the Missouri Catholic Conference. He promises that some of his legislative supporters will be ready with amendments this week.

Monsees insists there is no possibility of that money aiding embryonic stem cell research.

"I think there's a misunderstanding about what the purpose is for the Missouri Technology Corporation," Monsees said.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: