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Kentucky could fund research across state public universities under Senate Bill

Kentucky Capitol
Alix Mattingly
Kentucky's Capitol in Frankfort.

Legislation that would create an endowment fund for research collaborations between two or more state universities unanimously passed a Senate committee hearing Thursday.

It’s a dream that Kentucky Senate President Robert Stivers said began 20 years ago with a legislative investment into brain and spine trauma research across public universities. Now, the senator from Manchester said he hopes to create an endowment that will fund and encourage innovative research between the state’s universities.

“We want it to be successful. We want to see that it brings in other dollars. We want to know that it's cutting edge,” Stivers said in the Thursday committee hearing.

The legislation passed the Senate Education committee unanimously, with multiple senators singing its praise. Democratic Sen. Reginald Thomas from Lexington said he hoped the bill would elevate academics across the state as a top priority.

“As a lifelong Kentuckian, it's always been my observation that we talk a lot about being champions in the arena of athletics. And while there's nothing wrong about that, I wish we talked more about being champions in the arena of academics,” Thomas said. “And that's what this bill really does.”

The legislation would create an endowment for cross-university research. A group of university researchers with potential private backing could apply for one of five slots to receive seed money for their research using the interest from that endowment.

The researchers would receive funding over a five year period, with the opportunity to extend that by an extra five years. Under the bill, the Council of Secondary Education, which would review applications, would need to consider the impact the proposed research would have on “human quality of life,” and would prioritize advancements in medicine, health or economic development.

Stivers said the possibilities for research under the bill were endless, but gave a few examples of possible partnerships. He pointed to the aerospace program at Morehead State University and the aviation program at Eastern Kentucky University.

“Could you see them… maybe working together on aerospace and aviation and some research project that they would bring?” Stivers said. “These are examples of what could be. I don't know if they will be. But what I know, being somewhat of a country boy, you can't catch a fish until you cast something into the water. I've never seen them jump in my boat. So this is an attempt to go fishing.”

Stivers pointed to other research consortia, like the Research Triangle Regional Partnership that connects Duke University, North Carolina State University and University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. The partnership encourages businesses to tap into the research and workforce that the universities foster.

“They created a totally different type of research culture there,” Stivers said.

The bill is accompanied by other legislative attempts to allow Murray State University to operate its own veterinary science program, which would be the first in the state and allow Eastern Kentucky University to offer doctor's degrees in osteopathic medicine.

But those aren’t the only bills targeted at higher education institutions this year. Legislation designed to limit and severely curtail diversity, equity and inclusion — or DEI — efforts at public colleges and universities is also progressing in both chambers. University of Louisville and University of Kentucky’s presidents have both come out in opposition to the legislation.

“I strongly believe that you cannot deliver a high-quality university education without a diverse classroom and campus — inclusive of all demographics, identities and ideologies,” U of L President Kim Schatzel said in a statement.

According to a report produced by the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, state and local higher education funding in Kentucky totaled $1.3 billion in the 2022 fiscal year, making it one of the largest general fund budget categories in the state. But Kentucky still lags far behind the U.S. average amount of funding per student by $2,285. Starting in 1999, Kentucky actually exceeded national averages in per student funding, but began to lag again significantly after 2012.

Stivers said he hoped the investments in his bill would make Kentucky “21st century providers” of healthcare, economic development and scientific exploration.

“It will totally change the educational and economic dynamics of this state,” Stivers said.

State government and politics reporting is supported in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Sylvia is the Capitol reporter for Kentucky Public Radio, a collaboration including Louisville Public Media, WEKU-Richmond, WKU Public Radio and WKMS-Murray. Email her at sgoodman@lpm.org.
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