Report urges new funding to develop knowledge-based jobs


LITTLE ROCK — A report released Tuesday by the Arkansas Research Alliance argues for new spending on initiatives to spur research and develop and create knowledge-based jobs in the state.

The report, “Arkansas’ Knowledge Economy Initiatives: Analysis of Progress and Recommendations for the Future,” was prepared for the alliance by Battelle Technology Partnership Practice, a nonprofit research and development organization. Battelle studied how much the state has spent on initiatives promoting research, the return on its investment and the need for future funding.

The report concludes that state initiatives have boosted job growth in high-paying technology fields and recommends that the state commit $25 million a year to continuing to support those efforts.

Gov. Mike Beebe said Tuesday his proposed budget for the next fiscal year includes $1 million in new general-revenue spending to promote knowledge-economy initiatives and said he may propose more spending during the legislative session that begins in January.

“We may have a plan for a substantial portion, I’m not telling you it’ll be $24 million, but a substantial portion of additional money,” Beebe said at a Capitol news conference announcing the release of the report.

The governor said he was not yet ready to give more details.

According to the report, the state’s knowledge-economy initiatives used $61.2 million in state funds between 2008 and 2011 and leveraged an additional $191.8 million in non-state sources.

The initiatives directly benefited 135 companies employing 1,259 people, the report states. Those workers earn, on average, a little over $70,000 a year, more than double the $34,014 average annual wage of the private sector in Arkansas.

The report also states that between 2008 and 2011, Arkansas gained 6,000 new jobs in high-paying, knowledge-intensive industries, which generated a total of 11,800 new jobs across all industry sectors.

But the report also notes that Arkansas is far below the national average in per capita funding of university research. In 2010, Arkansas’ per capita spending on university research was $87, compared to $189 for the U.S.

Beebe said he believes scientific research is important to economic development but is difficult politically to fund because of tight budgets and the state’s many immediate needs. He said that was why in 2009 he dedicated a portion of the state’s tobacco settlement money to initiatives to promote research.

“I think it’s proven to be successful,” he said.

The Arkansas Research Alliance is a nonprofit organization governed by a board of trustees comprised of chancellors from research universities and CEOs from across the state. Jeffery Gardner, board chairman of the alliance, said the report shows that public-private partnerships are working in the state.

“The challenge is to identify sustainable funding to build on the progress and advance the knowledge-based community,” Gardner said.

Republican House Caucus leader Bruce Westerman, R-Hot Springs, said later he agrees with the governor on the importance of investing in research and development. He noted that Taylor Wilson, an 18-year-old nuclear scientist known for being the youngest person in the world to have built — at age 14 — a nuclear fusion reactor, is an Arkansas native.

“We need to keep talent like that in the state and develop new talent,” Westerman said.

Incoming Senate President Pro Tem Michael Lamoureux, R-Russellville, said lawmakers will look at any proposal the governor has to offer.

“Every proposal is going to be weighed against what else can be done with the money. It will be a very tough budget environment for any new spending, but if the proposal has merits then hopefully we can find a way to do that,” he said.