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Montana universities received $20 million grant for science and engineering

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The Montana University System this week received a $20 million, five-year grant from the National Science Foundation to strengthen the state’s science and engineering workforce with a program that will reach into campuses and communities across Montana.

“This is going to help Montana train our own scientists and engineers who will work on issues dear to our state and who will be tomorrow’s entrepreneurs creating high-tech jobs right here under the Big Sky,” said Governor Schweitzer.

Schweitzer’s office was instrumental in securing $3.5 million in matching funds for the grant, the largest ever received by the Montana NSF Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR).

“This grant shows that we know how to work together in Montana to get things done. Our entire university system got on board to make this happen and the whole state will benefit,” Schweitzer said.

Officially called a Research Infrastructure Improvement Track-1 Program Award, the new grant is the highest level grant awarded by NSF EPSCoR, and competition among states for the funding is fierce.

Clayton Christian, chairman of the Montana Board of Regents, praised the teamwork of Montana State University, the University of Montana, the Governor’s Office, and the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education.

“This was a very competitive process,” Christian said. “It shows how higher education can deliver for Montana when we work together with a focus on success.”

Mark Young, professor of plant sciences and plant pathology at MSU, is the Montana EPSCoR program director, but Montana EPSCoR is administered through the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education and serves every university, college and research institution in Montana. Montana was one of the five states that joined NSF EPSCoR when the program began in 1980. Montana is now one of 27 participating states.

EPSCoR is funded by the NSF and other federal agencies to help scientists and engineers in rural states become nationally competitive and to assist states in building their infrastructure. NSF EPSCoR also builds state and federal partnerships that use science and engineering to create new jobs and improve rural economies.

“We are very proud to show the citizens of Montana, and the rest of the country, that we can work together to help create a better, stronger state,” said MSU President Waded Cruzado.

“The development of completive research capacity for the state and the opportunities this will provide for students on all our campuses is immense,” said UM President Royce Engstrom. “This demonstrates how the university system can drive vital research and, ultimately, job creation for the betterment of everyone in our great state.”

The grant will allow the hiring of at least 12 new science and engineering faculty members across the state. The grant will support undergraduate and graduate student research. It will set up a math mentoring system where Native American students in tribal colleges will help students in tribal high schools make the transition to higher education. It will involve interactions with Montana businesses, especially resource-based companies that may have special needs or interests. It will involve social scientists who will examine issues, especially as they relate to science and engineering. Education and outreach will be an important component of the grant.

Overall, programs funded by the grant will be to improve the science and engineering infrastructure in Montana. Infrastructure in this case refers to people, ideas and research equipment.

“Instruments come and go, but people are what drive the research infrastructure in any state,” Christian said.

Examples of previous Montana NSF EPSCoR successes include:

· Between 2001-2007, EPSCoR awarded 106 Phase 0 and Phase 1.5 Small Business and Innovative Research (SBIR) proposals. These awards, of $3,000 to $5,000 assisted small businesses in leveraging larger funding, such as SBIR Phase I or II or partnerships with researchers.
· More recently (2007-2011), EPSCoR supported the Montana Technology Innovation Partnership which helped small businesses successfully apply for 90 SBIR awards totaling more than $24 million.
· More than $22 million in external funding has been brought into the state by 23 new faculty hired under the most recent award (2007-2011).
· Seven new tribal college faculty members have been hired.
· Since 2007, 107 tribal college students participated in EPSCoR research projects.
· Since 2001, a total of 258 graduate students have received support.
· Since 2001, a total of 1,344 undergraduate students have received support.
· Since 2001, a total of 87 new faculty have been hired across the state.

Young, the Montana EPSCoR program director, works with the Montana University System Science and Technology Advisory Committee (MUS-STAC), whose members come from MSU, UM, the Governor’s office, state legislators and the business community across Montana. The MUS-STAC is led by Deputy Commissioner Sylvia Moore in the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education.

Megan Paulson is the Co-Founder and Chief Operating Officer of Outlaw Partners.

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