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The state technology agency once prized as an economic engine and later slammed for inflating its value is receiving fresh criticism from the Legislature.
Two years after a series of reforms passed by lawmakers, the Utah Science Technology and Research (USTAR) initiative initially created to help turn university research into jobs still has work to do, finds a report from the state legislative auditor.
The audit questions USTAR's self-reported productivity, pointing to inconsistent information from universities and potential bias in its surveys. The agency must identify clear benchmarks, the report says, and conduct more frequent internal reviews.
"We believe USTAR should expedite the completion of this work," the team led by Auditor General John Schaff wrote, "with the full cooperation of the research universities," which employ some faculty on USTAR's dime.
But collaboration has stalled as the agency and the state's two research universities wrestle over who should profit when non-USTAR researchers end up using agency labs and generating income for USTAR.
"We are concerned that after nine months," auditors wrote, "that USTAR is still in negotiations with research universities" over the issue.
The report recommends the Legislature allow USTAR to access university information about patents and revenues. To date, USTAR has relied on the schools to report the data and could not verify the information. The agency also hired an outside consultant to ask businesses to estimate the share of their income generated from USTAR, which is hard to capture and could lead to inflated numbers, auditors wrote.
In 2015, the University of Utah took in $23 million in outside funding, requested 36 patents and received six. Logan's Utah State University received $8 million, filing for 35 patents and received 3, according to USTAR's fiscal year report.
In addition, "a clear accounting and understanding of license agreements," is needed, the report says, "to protect the state's interest."
The program was established 10 years ago to grow jobs, businesses and tax revenue by boosting university research at the University of Utah and Utah State University. The state has invested an annual $20 million to $30 million in the push to attract top researchers and commercialize technology.
In a written response to the audit, USTAR Chair Greg Bell said the program "is resolutely committed to providing transparency, accountability and responsibility" and has worked extensively with the Legislature and the governor's office to clean up reporting.
A legislative audit in 2013 slammed the program for saying it created thousands of jobs that no longer existed when auditors showed up to check on them. It also reported contract payouts that hadn't come in yet.
The Legislature passed reforms to ramp up oversight, accountability and measurable goals and the agency hired a new director.
Legislators on Monday did not hear a report on the audit, but were expected to refer it to a committee for discussion.