PORTLAND, Maine — Krystal Lacombe and Robin Spielmann work closely together, using an eyedropper to prepare material as they extract RNA and ready it for an experiment at the University of New England’s center for Genomics, Analytics and Proteomics.

The work they’re doing today as pharmacy students could prepare them for a world of personalized medicine, where patients aren’t just diagnosed with breast cancer in general, but rather the specific type of breast cancer they have, and where their genetic makeup has been mapped out to determine the exact best course of treatment for the individual people.

Proponents of a $20 million research and development bond under consideration by the Legislature say lawmakers need to pass the borrowing measure to help support this kind of training on state-of-the-art technology to prepare Maine students and companies for the innovation economy, as the state transitions beyond its traditional sectors.

The bond would be “transformative” to the economy, said Portland Mayor Michael Brennan at a Tuesday press conference at UNE’s School of Pharmacy.

“It will mean a tremendous opportunity for us to create jobs and close the skills gap,” said Brennan. “What this bond is going to do is to allow these students to stay in Maine and prosper.”

The bond, which would fund research and development investments awarded to profit and nonprofit labs, schools and even businesses on a competitive bid basis for capital investment, would be administered by the Maine Technology Institute. It is one of several bond proposals lawmakers will consider, likely on Wednesday. Others include $51 million for transportation projects; $11.3 million for higher education; $8 million for water and sewer infrastructure; and $5 million for the Land for Maine’s Future program.

In a break from past practice, the Legislature is considering each of the bills separately. In the past, lawmakers would consider a transportation bond and then a separate bond package, which contained all of the funding proposals. This year, Republican leadership has chosen to separate out the bond proposals, with a vote on the individual bonds.

Because of this change, there is more public lobbying for the various proposals, such as the press conference Tuesday and a similar one held Monday for the Land for Maine’s Future proposal. In the past, groups lobbied for passage, but the work was done at the State House, largely out of the public’s eye.

Any bond proposal passed by the Legislature would have to be signed by Gov. Paul LePage, and would require voter approval in the fall. A spokesperson for the governor said he has not made any statements yet on the proposed bonds, and is waiting to see how debate on a supplemental budget plays out.

Sen. Christopher Rector, R-Thomaston, is co-chairman of the Legislature’s Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee, and originally proposed a $50 million research and development bond. The Legislature in 2010 adopted a science and technology plan that called for that level of funding for research and development annually for five years, said Rector. In the annual Measures of Growth report produced for the Legislature by the Maine Development Foundation, Maine is always dinged for its research and development investments, he said, and the state doesn’t measure up well against similar states, New England states and the nation in that area. However, he added, the state does rank well in terms of how it implements the research and development investments and how those dollars are spent to boost the economy.

Reached at the State House, Rector said investment in Maine’s research and development infrastructure was critical to moving the economy ahead.

“Innovation is how you drive the economy; innovation and our opportunity to innovate successfully within the context of the traditional industries we’re involved in — fishing, farming, forestry,” said Rector.

In Portland, Brennan, Biddeford City Manager John Bubier and several UNE officials spoke in favor of the bond.

“I would urge the legislators on both sides of the aisle to take a strong look at this, and look to the future,” said Bubier.

Dr. Edward Bilsky, associate provost for research and scholarship, said past grant funding from the state has been matched by UNE, and has catapulted the college into leading research areas, including neuroscience, genomics and proteomics. The college works with local companies to source equipment and supplies, and also holds weeklong workshops with Maine companies, training their workers on the newest biomedical research equipment.

In the next room, Lacombe and other students worked on that equipment.
The Winslow native said she expects she will work in retail pharmacy when she graduates to pay down her student bills, and then hopes to return for an advanced research degree.

She said the bond proposal was important, not just for the opportunity it provides Maine students and businesses, but for the potential advances in science and medicine it may aid.

“I really think it’s important; research drives what drugs we have,” she said. “If you don’t fund it, you can’t expect to have it.”