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State budget woes put universities' alliance in jeopardy

January 13, 2009

With the start of a new Purdue University semester, graduate student Mike Zordan is thinking more about his latest research project than he is about the state budget.

But the two are linked because of ongoing efforts by Purdue and Indiana University officials to secure state funding for the Indiana Innovation Alliance -- a collaboration on life sciences research.

Last week, Gov. Mitch Daniels said the funding for the alliance may not make it into the two-year budget being crafted by legislators this spring because of lower state revenue projections. He's expected to deliver a similar message about needed budget cuts tonight, in his State of the State address.

Purdue and IU officials, however, aren't giving up their fight for a $70 million allocation in the biennial budget.

"It would be very valuable," Zordan, a biomedical engineering major, said of funding teamwork between the universities.

"There's a lot of technology at Purdue that needs to interact with the medical school" at IU, he said. "It can only help bring solutions to a lot of medical conditions."

State Rep. Tim Brown, R-Crawfordsville, said he's already heard from constituents at Purdue asking him to keep the school's funding in mind, despite the message from the governor's initial budget address last week.

"At this stage, a budget process is kind of like courting," Brown said. "It's still very early to tell" what will be funded.

The final decisions on what pieces make it into the 2009-2011 state budget won't be made until April, when the newest revenue projections come out, Brown said.

"Then we'll have to make very hard choices," he said.

Up until then, Purdue and IU officials plan to make their case to legislators.

"We fully understand it's a tight budget year, but this continues to remain a high priority," said Vic Lechtenberg, Purdue's vice provost for engagement.

He said legislators will be asked to consider the lost opportunities from not funding the alliance, including missed chances for grant and contract funding that may be a part of federal stimulus packages.

And even though Daniels did not recommend funding the program, he said, the governor noted its importance. Advocates will push that point when encouraging legislators to get creative in coming up with alternate funding.

"We think it actually is kind of a historic partnership," said Tom Morrison, associate vice president for public affairs and state relations at IU.

The alliance would link the two universities, which traditionally have been viewed as competitors, and it would link educators with private companies working to advance medicine or products.

Even though this funding initiative is being sought during the economic downturn, Morrison said, "we want to communicate the message that this is a piece of economic development that can grow the economy of Indiana."

Charles Buck, director of operations at Bindley Bioscience Center in Purdue's Discovery Park, said the interaction would allow the schools and private companies to share resources and not have to invest in their own expensive equipment.

"The research can be a great advantage for all parties involved," he said. Buck said much is already being accomplished through life sciences programs in the state, but "more will come rapidly with this kind of investment."

University officials are pitching the alliance as a payoff for the state because of the jobs it could create.

"And not just jobs in general, but life sciences jobs that will be good-paying and stable. ... It would increase the number and speed of startup companies in Indiana," said Larry MacIntyre, an IU spokesman.

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