The Kansas Biosciences Authority has undergone some significant changes since its formation in 2004 — and, at least in the view of some top higher education officials, those changes haven’t been for the better.
At a Kansas Board of Regents meeting earlier this month, Kansas University Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little and Kansas State University President Kirk Schulz both bemoaned the loss of KBA support in recent years. The KBA provided key funding for KU’s effort to gain its National Cancer Center designation and the state’s effort to land the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility at Kansas State.
Unfortunately, at the same time KU and K-State are struggling to replace declining federal research dollars, state support that came through KBA also has dropped dramatically. That drop, Gray-Little and Schulz said, will hurt their efforts to recruit top professors and push forward on the cancer center and NBAF.
The state universities aren’t the only ones that have seen reduced KBA support resulting from large reductions in state funding for the agency, which had operated on a budget of more than $35 million a year. An audit of the KBA in 2011 revealed some questionable expenditures by then-CEO Tom Thornton, but no evidence that investments had been mishandled by KBA. Nonetheless, political support for the agency has waned. Early in his tenure, Gov. Sam Brownback put a hold on $22 million that had been earmarked for the KBA. This year, KBA’s state funding dropped to about $4 million.
Among the KBA’s biggest critics after the audit was then-Kansas Secretary of Agriculture Dale Rodman, who criticized the KBA board and the state’s return on its KBA investment. Brownback subsequently appointed Rodman to the KBA board and he now serves as its chairman — a job he reportedly intends to keep despite the fact he has retired as ag secretary and plans to return to his home in Texas.
The KBA also has adopted a new “market-based” model for investments that focuses on looking for capital investment from outside the state and increased return on the state’s investment. It also wants to focus on creating “economic-based jobs rather than grant-based jobs, which often disappear if the funding does.” The strategy also will strive to find “investments that will spur the commercialization of new products within our state, focusing less on general research without a path to profitability,” and finding opportunities to assist private industry in bioscience fields.
That strategy doesn’t seem to bode well for requests from the state’s large research universities for money to fund research and researchers. And unless additional state funding is forthcoming for the KBA, its ability to support any efforts in the state will be severely curtailed.
It’s a far cry from what initially was envisioned for this agency. Whether the KBA is a victim of politics, the economy or some other factor, Kansas legislators need to take another look at the agency and make sure it still is fulfilling at least part of the mission it was intended to serve.