Science Foundation should stick to business

The East Valley Tribune
Monday, January 22, 2007
Editorial Board

A Jan. 12 announcement about the first round of grants from the Science Foundation of Arizona renews our concerns about allowing this group to fund education projects with little state oversight.

Last year, the Legislature gave $35 million in tax money to the newly created private nonprofit with the intent of spurring new economic development in industries related to bio-science, medicine and cutting edge computer technology.

The group’s first step to justify that public investment was for its board of directors to identify which areas and activities would be eligible for grant funding. When some of the foundation’s top officials met with the Tribune Editorial Board in November to explain their list, we noticed a rather large of number of topics related to education — university professor endowments, graduate student scholarships, even research internships for high school teachers and primary education students. Senior opinion writer Le Templar asked why we shouldn’t view the foundation as a cover for funneling more tax money into universities and the public school system, an issue of frequent tension between Gov. Janet Napolitano and the Legislature.

Foundation president Donald Budinger and executive director Bill Harris urged us to consider the entire package as a commitment to excellence in business development and job creation. Arizona needs to increase the number of college degrees awarded in math and science to appeal to technology companies, they said, which is why the foundation is making education grants a priority. But Budinger and Harris emphasized the board plans to use more than half of the $35 million to “seed” small business development and to support university research proposals that could result in the next medical miracle or white-hot business spinoff.

Still, as Capitol Media Services reported in the Tribune last week, the first $4 million in grants went entirely to establish graduate student fellowships at the state’s three public universities.

We understand the value in asking a board of business leaders, experts in their respective fields, to determine which individual research proposals and business plans show the most promise for awarding grants. But general university and public school funding is a primary function of state government under the Arizona constitution, with the Legislature and governor (or the voters) acting after weighing education needs against competing demands for our tax dollars.

Now, the universities can bypass the people’s representatives and appeal for more tax money from an unelected group of individuals that has only limited disclosure requirements under state and federal law. We are impressed with the credentials of the present foundation board and staff. But what would prevent some future version of this group from building an uncomfortably close relationship with the schools it funds, and failing to use tax dollars to benefit the state as a whole?

Gov. Janet Napolitano wants the Legislature to provide another $35 million in the next budget. Lawmakers should first consider placing some restrictions that would prevent the foundation from awarding grants related to basic education, a role that’s better filled by those directly accountable to the taxpayers.