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Good science, and even better economics

 (The Spokesman-Review)
(The Spokesman-Review)

Gov. Christine Gregoire’s proposed Life Sciences Discovery Fund has more supporters than a petri dish has bacteria.

Not a voice was raised against the $350 million plan during a state Senate hearing Tuesday. It was as if SB 5581 and three companion bills had distilled the thinking and ambitions of a Washington scientific community widely recognized for its research, but almost overlooked as a source of economic growth. If there were concerns, they related to some forms of embryonic research and gene transferral, some of which can only be called bizarre.

One bill, SB 5594, would regulate stem cell research and cloning.

Enactment of the legislation would endorse an all-too-rare effort at strategic thinking on economic matters. The non-materialistic bonus would be substantial contributions to human welfare.

The state does not start from a standstill.

Washington, and particularly the University of Washington, has attracted hundreds of millions of research dollars. A university spokesman reckoned that total economic impact in the Seattle area is around $1.6 billion. Some 33,000 jobs are directly or indirectly related to research-related activities.

Washington State University has been a leader in agricultural science, with assistance launching the Green Revolution that vastly increased crop yields, and supporting Washington’s wine industry among its credits. Still, the university has acknowledged problems translating its research into products, and those problems are not unique to Pullman. Financial and legal issues have impeded Washington’s progress toward becoming a biotechnology hotbed on a par with San Diego or North Carolina’s Research Triangle, let alone the Boston and Bay areas that are national and international leaders.

And with biotechnology seemingly the holy economic grail du jour, most states are in the hunt. California will dedicate $3 billion to stem cell research alone.

Gregoire, who took the unusual step of testifying for her own bill, recognizes the challenge. Washington, she said, leads only Alabama in state funding for research. The lack of state support denies researchers matching funds that help secure federal and private sector grants. With federal research money likely to shrink as the Bush Administration looks for ways to save money, state dollars will be that much more important.

Although she has suggested Washington make stem cell research a priority, Tuesday she said detecting disease and preventative therapies might also be a focus, one that would be helpful to Spokane-area companies like Signature Genomics Laboratories.

Support for the development of bio-information technologies like that done at Inland Northwest Health Services should also be included.

Part of the state’s problem, Gregoire said, can be traced to an ethics bill she had a hand in back in 1993. Subsequent interpretation has discouraged some crossover of publicly funded research into the private sector. SB 5811 will clarify the law and remove a barrier to commercialization.

The state will not, however, provide money directly to business. The funds are intended to help build laboratories, attract top scientists, and nurture young researchers with potential breakthrough ideas.

Gregoire is undismayed by the mass rush into biotechnology by all but a few states. Besides UW and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Washington is also the home of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which is contributing billions toward health initiatives worldwide.

With $350 million, Washington may not be swinging for the fences ala California, but that will be a respectable war chest if the money is used carefully. And these are not tax dollars, but bonus money due the state thanks to Gregoire’s leadership negotiating a $200 billion settlement with the tobacco industry. Delivery, in the form of 10 annual $35 million payments, begins in 2008.

Although the delay forces Washington to hold its fire while other states let loose salvos of cash, it also gives officials abundant time to recruit talent to oversee the initiative and define its objectives. The legislation also requires the state to drum up $10 million in private sector matching funds before the first $35 million kicks in.

The fund, though finite, need not be limited to life sciences research.

Linda Hull, a lobbyist for the Washington Biotechnology and Biomedical Association, urged the lawmakers to apply some of the money to improving the teaching of bioscience in grades K-12 so industry will find a ready labor supply.

That’s a good idea.

Once the money is in place, assuming the Legislature approves, there will be more applicants than there are bacteria in a petri dish.