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Bert Caldwell: State budget cuts threaten vital medical research

The Washington Life Sciences Discovery Fund could be on life support soon.

The fund’s budget, $65 million in this biennium, has been whacked down to $5 million by a House Appropriations Committee, and to $38 million by the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

Not much of a Band-Aid for the self-inflicted, $9 billion budget wound lawmakers are trying to bind up.

A $5 million appropriation would do little more than cover LSDF overhead, Executive Director Lee Huntsman says. The grants funding cutting-edge biomedical research in the state would all but stop. The Senate version would keep at least a minimum of grant activity going.

The fund has already committed $25 million to 17 research efforts. Studies at Washington State University and Pacific Northwest National Laboratories in the Tri-Cities have captured about one-third of the money. A potential $4 million grant to another WSU researcher is one of four the LSDF is negotiating, Huntsman says.

Studies under way might lead to ways to screen for and treat diabetes, multiple sclerosis or lupus; accelerate cancer drug development; or improve treatment for stroke and brain-injury victims.

Such work is precisely the kind envisioned when the LSDF was created in 2005. The money comes not from tax revenues, but from “bonus” money the state receives thanks to then-Attorney General Chris Gregoire’s role in negotiating a 1998 settlement with the tobacco industry. The bonus was expected to yield about $350 million over 10 years, but that amount shrinks somewhat as fewer people light up.

As governor, Gregoire has continued to support the LSDF. The proposed cuts are as good a measure as any of the divide between her office and legislative leaders discussing a sales tax increase or income tax on the wealthy to cure the state’s budget ills.

Glenn Kuper, spokesman for the Office of Budget Management, says Gregoire believes research underwritten by the LDSF will pay off big in the future.

“She doesn’t want that to be lost because of the short-term problem we’re experiencing now,” Kuper says.

Sen. Chris Marr, a legislative trustee for the LDSF, says that body’s $38 million budget recognizes budget realities yet moves some research forward.

“We’re making some important investments that have the potential for huge payoffs down the road,” he says.

And the state is not going it alone.

Huntsman notes that private and nonprofit investors are piggybacking $100 million in additional money on top of the tobacco dollars. Those contributions reflect the merit they see in projects funded by the state, he said, the vigor of the process used to winnow 21 grant awardees from 265 applicants, and the benchmarking done to assure the research stays on track.

They also anticipate sharing in the potential financial rewards that are evaluated along with the science when grants are awarded, he says.

Huntsman says the LDSF has three more grant rounds under way. The deadline for submissions in at least one of those competitions will be extended from May 1 to July 1 pending final action on the state budget.

One unfortunate side effect of the preliminary cuts has been concern among applicants that Washington’s dedication to research is wavering, he says.

The same questions apply to much of what legislators do as they balance higher education against K-12, or more taxation against more responsible spending.

Maybe, if good sense prevails and the final LDSF budget looks more like the Senate’s, there will be a little money out there to study the detection and prevention of Olympia fever. Easy to catch, hard to cure.



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