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North Dakota has seen the fastest economic growth in the nation, with an annual growth of 5 percent since 2010, largely due to the growth of the state’s energy sector, according to the recently released "State of the Heartland: Factbook 2018" by Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institution and the Walton Family Foundation.

That is terrific news considering the 2014 crash in oil prices that sent a ripple through North Dakota’s economy. Companies retrenched and legislators cut spending from $6 billion in the 2015-17 biennium to $4.3 billion for 2017-19. The downturn prompted virtually unanimous agreement that the state needs to diversify its economy to reduce the dependence on energy and agriculture.

The Valley Prosperity Partnership and a growing coalition of businesses, business groups and community leaders believe that the University of North Dakota and North Dakota State University are important economic drivers in our state. Research conducted at UND and NDSU helps to sustain and boost our competitive advantage in agriculture and energy. Their research also leads to innovations in other sectors that translate into new economic opportunities, a more skilled workforce and higher-paying jobs for North Dakotans.

The idea of utilizing the talents and expertise at UND and NDSU, North Dakota's two research universities, to strengthen the state's economy has been in development by the VPP since 2012 when leaders from business, higher education and economic development came together to create a road map for the future. While the VPP’s other top priorities — workforce development, water security and management, infrastructure, entrepreneurship and innovation — took on a decidedly regional focus, expanding university research capacity and relevancy quickly emerged as a priority with statewide implications.

A statewide, scientific poll commissioned by the VPP in the spring of 2018 clearly shows that North Dakotans are supportive of investing in the research and development of emerging technologies at North Dakota’s two research universities.

• Research to diversify economy — 79 percent of respondents agreed that the state of North Dakota should invest research dollars in new industries in addition to agriculture and energy in order to diversify the economy.

• Research on emerging technologies — 77 percent of respondents agreed that NDSU and UND can aid in the diversification of the economy through research of emerging technologies.

The survey results were similar for all regions of the state — rural to urban, north to south and east and west. Our recent meetings with NDSU President Dean Bresciani and UND President Mark Kennedy in Grand Forks, Fargo, Bismarck, Minot, Williston, Dickinson and Watford City confirm these findings.

"The State of the Heartland: Factbook 2018" report concludes that innovation is the core driver of prosperity in the 21st century. There is a proven and strong relationship between an economy’s ability to convert its science and technology assets into new or improved products, processes and services and the creation of economic opportunities and higher-paying jobs.

A solid and predictable base of funding is required to ensure that North Dakota’s two research universities attract and leverage transformational research opportunities to generate diversified economic growth. Look no further than the oil-producing state of Texas and its Permanent University Fund, which has a dedicated stream of funding and, year after year since 1923, has supported economic growth and diversity initiatives. These kinds of investments are especially important for developing opportunities associated with key technology sectors with high potential in North Dakota, including value-added agriculture and energy, autonomous systems, health care and advanced computing/big data.

As business leaders, we support using Legacy Fund proceeds and/or other state funding for universities to perform collaborative research with technology and business innovators, compete for federal and corporate research dollars, and proactively build expertise and capacity in high potential research clusters. This will empower North Dakota’s two research universities to reach their full potential as engines of innovation, diversification and economic vitality.

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Tammy Miller and Steve Burian are co-chairs of the Valley Prosperity Partnership.