A state board which helped recruit high-profile researchers to South Carolina’s three major universities will phase out after this year.
Language approved in the state budget will sunset the SmartState Board of Review after this year. The program was created by legislators in 2002 to recruit top-level researchers to the state’s universities through an “Centers for Economic Excellence” program. It initially received $30 million annually in lottery funds and required colleges match the state money with 100 percent private sources. But the money stopped coming from the state after the 2008 recession hit.
Former board chairman Regan Voit said the board helped create and oversee more than 50 economic centers in the past 15 years, but is no longer necessary now that there is no more money to award. “I believe it is a fair statement to say it put South Carolina on a map of the world as an excellent research center,” he told South Carolina Radio Network. “It put our universities on the map.”
Board members are tasked with recommending the existing agency which will replace them by December 31.
The centers were launched with helps from lottery funds which into SmartState’s endowment, but schools also were required to match the amount with outside industry donations. Some of the more notable programs include Clemson University’s International Center for Automotive Research (CU-ICAR), the University of South Carolina’s alternative fuels program and the Medical University of South Carolina’s simulation technology hub.
However, the program was strongly criticized by conservative groups in the late 2000s who noted a significant portion of the match money was coming from other public entities rather than private sources. The libertarian thinktank South Carolina Policy Council accused the centers of “cloaking economic development spending as higher-ed funding” in a 2010 report.
Voit said he is confident the four dozen various economic centers can continue without state grants. “The centers are working on their own doing the job they were tasked to do,” he said. “And there’s not much work for the SmartState board to do, with the exception of reviewing an annual audit that’s required by the legislation and filing an annual report. Both those tasks can easily be done by another state agency.”
The board claims the grants created $1.5 billion in non-state investment and helped create over 10,000 jobs, citing calculations made by University of South Carolina economist Joseph von Nessen.