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A lesson on how to cripple economic development

Recently one of my colleagues at our newspaper wrote a piece about the efforts of some Nevada beekeepers who are attempting to deal with neonicotinoid insecticides as a possible cause of honey bee colony collapse. The article had nothing to do with the University of Nevada, Reno, but one reader took the opportunity to post a comment about the campus:

“Maybe we should ask why UNR Ag is focusing on wine? In California, there is large-scale food production, and also concern for native bees by academics and activists. Bees don’t pollinate cottonseed, just the flowers, and this crop isn’t grown here anyway.”

Of course, this crop is grown here. There are four vineyards or wineries in three counties — Churchill, Douglas and Nye. (State law, for some reason, limits wineries to the small counties.) So if higher education in Nevada can do something about honeybee colony collapse, the state’s wine corporations will benefit.

In 1995 the UNR agriculture college established an experimental vineyard on Valley Road in Reno for use in researching yield, water efficiency, temperatures and other issues related to grape production for winemaking.

The notion that higher education has a role in aiding business is not always well-known to the public. Earlier this year I asked the Nevada Board of Regents chair Jason Geddes whether he thinks the public is aware of the linkage between state campuses and economic development.

“I think a great number of them are,” Geddes said. “I think with (Assembly Bill) 449 in the last session and the creation of the Knowledge Fund, there was a lot of interest that stemmed out of (the Brookings Foundation report on Nevada) that to have any economic development future, you had to include higher education for workplace development, research and business startups.”

I admire his optimism, but I really question whether a foundation report and a piece of state legislation have permeated very far into the public’s consciousness.

Nor does the legislature’s creation of the Knowledge Fund suggest that even legislators are particularly bullish on that linkage. For two years after the creation of the fund, the legislators left it empty.

On Jan. 15, 2009, Gov. Jim Gibbons proposed cuts in higher education that amounted to a third of UNR’s instructional budget and even more at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. The next day I spoke with NV Energy President Jeff Ceccarelli. NV Energy is one of a number of corporations that have working relationships with state campuses. The corporations get research and other forms of aid. The campuses get greater expertise and financial support. In the case of NV Energy, it had helped UNR develop an academic minor in alternative energy. So the scale of Gibbons’ cuts took Ceccarelli aback. “In fact, I was on the phone talking with the dean up there right away,” he said.

Then I spoke with acting engineering dean Emmanuel Maragakis, who said, “One of the areas we concentrate on is renewable energy, so we were as concerned as he (Ceccarelli) was.” As it happened, the legislature would not go along with the level of cuts Gibbons proposed.

Nevertheless, his influence still resulted in massive cuts and numerous business-related programs were damaged. And, as a result, economic development in this state became less effective and less competitive at a time when adjoining small states, particularly Utah, were beefing up higher education and thus their appeal to the business community. Nevada has yet to regain the lost ground or catch up with those states.

Dennis Myers is a veteran and Nevada journalist.

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