‘Rare opportunity’: NU pitches ideas for spending federal funds on research, education | Local

The University of Nebraska took its turn Thursday to pitch its ideas to state lawmakers for how to best spend “once-in-a-lifetime” funds provided to the state through the American Rescue Plan Act.

At a marathon Appropriations Committee hearing where testimony was heard on eight different proposals totaling $185 million, President Ted Carter said NU leaders put together the package with an eye on the future.

“These one-time federal funds offer our state a rare opportunity not only to recover from the pandemic, but to grow our economy and quality of life for generations to come,” Carter said.

NU’s plans include funding to build new facilities to further health science education and agricultural and cancer research, as well as boosting the university’s computing power, bolstering counterterrorism efforts, and expanding its ability to respond to future pandemics.

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“These ideas will require close collaboration with public and private partners,” Carter told the committee, “but they are solutions that the University of Nebraska is uniquely positioned to deliver.”

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Through LB703, introduced by Sen. Matt Williams of Gothenburg, the university would build a $50 million companion building to the $140 million U.S. Department of Agricultural National Center for Resilient and Regenerative Precision Agriculture planned for Nebraska Innovation Campus.

The 80,000-square-foot companion building would be paid for through $25 million in American Rescue Plan funds, as well as $25 million in private donations, Williams said.

Once built, the proposed facility would convert research done at the USDA facility into “real-world products and services,” Williams said, boosting crop yields, combating drought and improving animal health.

“The kind of research we’re talking about isn’t ivory tower activity with meager relevance to agricultural activity,” he said. “It’s expanding scientific knowledge with the utmost real-world utility for farmers and ranchers.”

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Lisa Lunz, the president of Ag Builders of Nebraska, said applied research into grid soil sampling and variable rate fertilizer application done at NU has benefited her family’s farm north of Wakefield in Dixon County.

“Technology continues to help agriculture reach a new plateau for production,” she told the committee. “Twenty years ago, if you had suggested that we would be producing 200-plus bushels of corn per acre, we would have questioned that assumption.

“With today’s technology, our yield monitor can read over 350 bushels per acre,” Lunz added. “What is the potential for Nebraska farmers and ranchers?”

Lunz and Michael Jung, president and CEO of Burlington Capital Investment, said the opportunities for research done at the USDA facility at Innovation Campus to be commercialized and spun out into new companies is also promising.

Jung said investment into “ag-tech” — agricultural technology — has fallen behind funding of other areas such as med-tech, pharma-tech and bio-tech, and the investment that does take place is happening outside of the Midwest.

“Of the top 15 states leading ag-tech investments, only two were from the Midwest,” Jung said. “From my perspective, that seems just wrong.”

Williams’ bill will help redirect that kind of investment back into Nebraska, and allow local farmers, ranchers, processors and distributors to provide more and better input into the solutions that are needed, Jung told the committee.

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“We need Nebraska and Midwest ag-minded entrepreneurs and companies to lead the charge in developing the new wave of ag technologies,” he said.

A second bill (LB721), from Omaha Sen. Robert Hilkemann, would provide $60 million in relief funds for the creation of a new Nebraska Rural Health Education Building on the University of Nebraska at Kearney campus.

Operated by the University of Nebraska Medical Center, the 107,000-square-foot facility would aim to reverse a trend of diminishing numbers of health care providers practicing in rural communities, Hilkemann said, and by extension, those communities as a whole.

“This is truly a once-in-a-generation opportunity for the Legislature and our state to address rural health care needs by educating students in the setting where they practice: rural Nebraska,” Hilkemann said.

The bill would create new programming in the colleges of medicine, nursing, allied health professions, pharmacy and public health in Kearney, and give students from central and western Nebraska an option to enter the health fields closer to home.

Juliann Sebastian, dean of UNMC’s College of Nursing, said the facility would expand the capacity for future students seeking to become physicians, nurses and therapists.

The current program at UNK has grown from 124 students when it opened in 2015 to 167 students this year. Expanding could open up 40 more slots, she said.

“Students are telling us they want to be part of the solution,” she said.

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Sen. John Lowe of Kearney, in an uncommon move, testified in support of Hilkemann’s proposal before the committee, calling it a “key component” for the central Nebraska community, as well as rural parts of the state.

The Appropriations Committee also heard testimony for six other bills designating federal relief funds to various programs and projects across NU:

* LB766 from Sen. Mark Kolterman of Seward that appropriates $15 million for pancreatic cancer research at UNMC if the university secured $15 million in private donations for the same purpose.

* LB904 from Sen. Myron Dorn of Adams that appropriates $50 million in funds to establish an Artificial Intelligence, Cybersecurity and Holland Computing Center facility at Nebraska Innovation Campus.

* LB950 from Sen. Wendy DeBoer of Bennington to appropriate $10 million for the Global Center for Health Security at UNMC.

* LB961 from Omaha Sen. Tony Vargas to appropriate $4 million to the National Counterterrorism Innovation, Technology and Education Center at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

* LB962, also from Vargas, that tags $5 million to establish a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Trail Center that recruits high school students to UNO.

* LB1054 from Omaha Sen. Mike McDonnell that appropriates $16 million to modernize research labs and equipment in the Department of Biomechanics and for the Health and Kinesiology Research, Engagement and Community Hub initiative at UNO.