The Legislature’s Appropriations Committee considered eight proposals on Feb. 17 that could direct $185 million in federal funds to the University of Nebraska.
University of Nebraska President Ted Carter said the one-time funds — which stem from Nebraska’s approximately $1.4 billion allocation in American Rescue Plan Act funds — offer Nebraska once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to recover from the pandemic but also grow its economy and quality of life.
Carter said he and the chancellors of NU’s four campuses looked toward only bold ideas with long-term impacts. The proposals are also initiatives only NU can carry out, according to Carter, and they are situated around existing strengths.
“Agriculture, rural health care, STEM education, cancer research, counterterrorism — these are areas where we have some of the very best talent in the world right here at Nebraska,” Carter said. “And they are areas that we believe are so vital to the future of our state that we will pursue every opportunity to bring them to fruition.”
LB721 — Build the University of Nebraska Medical Center Rural Health Complex at UNK
What: Sen. Robert Hilkemann of Omaha proposed building an $85 million rural health complex housed at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, which would address rural health care challenges accentuated by the pandemic and serve as a model for other states.
This would be a 107,000 square foot building designed to complement the existing Health Science Education Complex at UNK that opened in 2015.
“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 a setting where they practice: rural Nebraska,” Hilkemann said.
Cost: $60 million in federal funds, $25 in private funds raised by NU; Hilkemann also introduced an amendment to appropriate $13 million to further support the expansion
Impact: Sen. John Lowe of Kearney, a co-sponsor of the bill, led two interim studies in 2019 and 2020 to study the relationship between UNMC and UNK.
According to the studies, students are more likely to stay in the communities in which they attend school.
UNK Chancellor Doug Kristensen said rural Nebraska is at risk because of the pandemic, and amid large health care shortages, it’s difficult to attract or keep residents in the area.
LB766 — Enhance pancreatic cancer research at UNMC
What: Sen. Mark Kolterman of Seward outlined a proposal to establish a $30 million Center of Excellence in Pancreatic Cancer. Kolterman’s idea has personal connections to his wife Suzanne’s death in 2017.
“Her diagnosis came without warning. She was a picture of health until she began noticing symptoms after the cancer spread throughout her body,” Kolterman said. “Unfortunately, this could happen to anyone. Any one of us. Any of our families. Without warning.”
Kolterman said his goal is that there will one day be early screening and a cure.
Cost: $15 million in federal funds, $15 million in private funds raised by NU
Impact: UNMC Chancellor Dr. Jeffrey Gold said pancreatic cancer is the fourth leading cause of cancer death, and more than 200 Nebraskans die each year from it. With difficulty in diagnosing the cancer early and in late-stage treatment, Gold said the new funding would support development and testing of early screening methods and therapies.
Dr. Kelsey Klute, a medical oncologist specializing in treating cancers of the digestive tract, especially pancreatic cancer, said the odds someone survives five years after diagnosis is only 10%, while most people die within a year of diagnosis.
Klute said current funding supports about only 20% of the UNMC team’s ideas.
LB703 — Construct an agricultural and natural resource research facility at UNL
What: Sen. Matt Williams of Gothenburg has proposed creating a $50 million agricultural innovation facility on Nebraska Innovation Campus at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. This would complement the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s plan to build a $140 million National Center for Resilient and Regenerative Precision Agriculture at NIC.
USDA’s center would be 120,000 square feet in scale, and the companion facility would be 80,000 square feet, according to Williams.
“The impressive scale of the department’s investment here makes a strong and clear statement about the importance USDA places on Nebraska as a major center for cutting edge agricultural research,” Williams said.
Cost: $25 million in federal funds, $25 million in private funds raised by NU
Impact: Mike Boehm, vice chancellor for the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, said the funding would transform the future of Nebraska’s agriculture.
LB950 — Support the Global Center for Health Security at UNMC
What: Sen. Wendy DeBoer of Bennington proposed providing $10 million to the Global Center to further support and maintain its global standing. Doctors from the Global Center briefed senators on COVID-19 on March 10, 2020, and have led conversations globally regarding COVID-19, according to DeBoer.
“We don’t know what medical biohazard or other threats, what new words future senators like us will face when they have their equivalent of our March 10, 2020, briefing,” DeBoer said. “But whatever they face in these fields, I want you to know that we have helped equip them to meet those challenges by keeping the Global Center as a leader in their field.”
Cost: $10 million in federal funds
Impact: Dr. Chris Kratochvil, the distinguished chair of the Global Center, said the funding is necessary to maintain Nebraska’s leadership in infectious diseases and to propel the state as a national expert in health care preparedness and response for all hazard events.
LB961 — Support the National Counterterrorism Innovation Technology and Education Center (NCITE) at UNO
What: Sen. Tony Vargas of Omaha proposed giving NCITE $4 million. NCITE is a U.S. Department of Homeland Security center of excellence and was established in 2020. Vargas said it can grow to be a place where federal agencies send their workers for more training.
“Nebraska can be a place leading the U.S. from the center, helping pull people from the extremes to reduce violence, build resilience and create a more stable future,” Vargas said.
Cost: $4 million in federal funds
Impact: Gina Ligon, the director of NCITE, said the technology to combat terrorism has to take into account the demographics and technology constraints of the area, such as rural Nebraska.
“I’m asking you to invest in this idea that’s bigger than all of us: invest in a hub for security innovation right here in our state,” Ligon said. “Like I said to Homeland Security when I was fighting against the University of Maryland to win the center, Omaha’s not in the middle of nowhere; it’s in the middle of everywhere.”
LB904 — Establish the Artificial Intelligence, Cybersecurity and Holland Computing Center at UNL
What: Sen. Myron Dorn of Adams proposed a new center for UNL’s Nebraska Innovation Campus that would address data availability and prevent cyber attacks for Nebraska’s agriculture producers and businesses. As the industry expands, the risk for cyber attacks does as well.
Cost: $50 million in federal funds
Impact: UNL Chancellor Ronnie Green said the expansion would increase the Holland Computing Center’s capacity through enhanced high-speed, cutting edge research.
“This investment will ensure that Nebraska is a regional hub of excellence and economic growth in cybersecurity and artificial intelligence for generations to come,” Green said.
LB1054 — Modernize labs and equipment for the College of Education, Health and Human Sciences at UNO
What: Sen. Mike McDonnell of Omaha proposed $16 million to support UNO’s Department of Biomechanics and the Health and Kinesiology Research, Engagement and Community Hub initiative.
“LB1054 is important to our state, our future workforce and our ability as a state to position ourselves as national leaders in biomedical research and training that grows opportunities in our economy,” McDonnell said.
Cost: $16 million in federal funds
Impact: Alexey Kamenskiy, chair of the biomechanics department, said the investment would position Nebraska as a leader in cardiovascular biomechanics as well as expand and strengthen device manufacturing and testing capabilities for cardiovascular diseases.
LB962 — Renovate and construct facility for the STEM TRAIL Center at UNO
What: Vargas introduced a second proposal that could support renovations and construction of a facility to house the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Teaching Research and Inquiry-based Learning Center at UNO, commonly the STEM TRAIL Center.
Cost: $5 million in federal funds
Impact: Christine Cutucache, the center’s director, said the center has been only virtual since its inception in 2019. The U.S. Department of Labor predicted thousands of STEM jobs will be needed in Nebraska alone, so in-person STEM components for learners of all ages are vital.
“If the last two years have taught us anything, the difference between economies that thrive and those that struggle to survive is an agile workforce equipped with skills in science, technology, engineering and math,” UNO Chancellor Joanne Li said.