Legislature restores $18.5 million in Science Foundation Arizona funding

November 30, 2009

By hammersmith

In what the chairman of Science Foundation Arizona (SFAz) called a victory for “the rule of law and Arizona’s future,” the state Legislature restored close to $18.5 million in funding to SFAz on Nov. 23, 10 months after pulling the money to help address the state’s budget deficit.

Re-appropriating the funding to SFAz will allow the public-private partnership to fulfill commitments it had made to research and education projects across Arizona in the areas of information and communications technology, sustainability, and the biosciences.

“We are very pleased that an overwhelming majority of the legislators support the rule of law and Arizona’s future,” said Don Budinger, SFAz’s chairman of the board, in the Arizona Republic.

In January, $22.5 million previously authorized for SFAz to distribute as grants was swept into the state’s general fund as the Legislature sought to close a $1.6 billion budget deficit. SFAz had already secured matching funds for the appropriation from private philanthropic donors, and had already awarded most of the grants that the appropriation was to fund.

Backers of SFAz argued that the nature of the grant commitments meant that the state was legally obligated to restore the funding.

“I don’t believe encumbered money can be taken,” said Sen. Barbara Leff, a Paradise Valley Republican, in the Arizona Capitol Times in February.

SFAz ultimately sued to recover the funds, and in June a Maricopa County Superior Court judge ruled against the state, though he acknowledged that a mechanism did not exist to enforce the ruling.

Budinger, SFAz President and CEO Bill Harris, and other supporters of the organization continued to work through the fall to persuade legislators of SFAz’s importance and convince them to restore the $18,474,923 contractually promised to grantees.

“The state is our partner,” Budinger emphasized in October. “We are committed to helping our partner meet its obligations.”

The numerous projects that were going unfunded included a premier program of graduate research fellowships at the state’s public universities; a major investment in the Critical Path Institute, a Tucson-based nonprofit working to accelerate the development of safe new medical products; and a project at Arizona State University jointly funded by energy giant BP to develop biofuels from photosynthetic bacteria.

Those projects gained a new lease on life in the Legislature’s fourth special session of 2009, when a bill to appropriate the lost funds to SFAz from the state’s risk-management revolving fund passed overwhelmingly.

Resolution of the dispute was welcomed by recipients of SFAz grants, including ASU, which was losing momentum on several SFAz-supported research projects.

“We can restart those projects and go back to our corporate partners and say, ‘We’re back in business here,'” said Rick Shangraw, ASU’s vice president for research and economic affairs, in the Arizona Republic.

Next on tap for SFAz is a task likely to prove even more difficult than recovering the lost funds: securing ongoing state support in the midst of the persistent economic downturn.

Marty Shultz, chair of Arizona’s Bioscience Roadmap, said in the Phoenix Business Journal that sustained support for SFAz is one of the most critical priorities for the state’s bioscience sector, along with continued backing for the Phoenix-based Translational Genomics Research Institute, funding for STEM (science, technology, mathematics, and engineering) education programs, and authorization for construction of an important research building on the downtown Phoenix Biomedical Campus.

“We need to get the governor and Legislature to move on these matters,” Shultz said in the Business Journal.

For more information:

Push is on to secure scientific research,” Arizona Republic, 11/27/2009

SFAz leaders strive to preserve, advance state’s research-driven economy,” Flinn Foundation, 11/06/2009

Biotech backers want funds restored,” Phoenix Business Journal, 10/23/2009