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Published March 20 2013

Forum editorial: A stealth attack on research

In another example of why the North Dakota Legislature should refrain from micromanaging the state’s colleges and universities, a few lawmakers have renewed an attack on a North Dakota State University grant to create a comprehensive, voluntary sex education and life skills program. An amendment attached to a Senate abortion bill (SB 2368) would prohibit the use of government funds to be used to contract with any organization that counsels in favor of abortion or provides abortion services. Planned Parenthood is a partner on the grant but does not provide abortion services in North Dakota.

The program is optional and requires parental consent for youth participation. The grant is federal money; not a dime is state funding.

Two university researchers secured the three-year federal grant. It was briefly suspended when a few legislators, led by Rep. Bette Grande, R-Fargo, all but threatened university administrators with all manner of implied consequences if they did not kill the grant. When that did not happen, Grande had the Legislative Council prepare the amendment.

This latest machination comes after the grant itself and the grant process were scrutinized by North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem and found to be in compliance with state law. University officials, who did not distinguish themselves when the researchers and the grant were attacked by legislators, were satisfied with the legal review. The grant was reinstated.

Not convinced by common sense and established law, what was Grande’s ham-handed reaction? Change the law. And while Planned Parenthood is her target of choice this week, the broad language in the amendment could undermine or scuttle other areas of valuable scientific and social research if Grande and her allies do not approve of participating organizations, no matter how tangential such involvement might be.

It all smacks of the witch hunt and assault on academic freedom that compelled North Dakotans to establish the State Board of Higher Education in 1938. The amendment enables the creation of an unofficial black list of organizations that would be prohibited from funding research in North Dakota – and by Grande’s Inquisition-like standard, it could be a long list.

The amendment is legislation at its worst. It is an unapologetic misuse of the legislative process. It should be stripped from the host bill and sent to the place where vacuous ideas go to die.

Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.