Washington needs to up its game to compete with other states and preserve the strong local cancer-research community.
AS a national powerhouse for cancer research, Washington’s biotech innovation economy must not be taken for granted. Yet, without decisive legislative action in Olympia this year, the state’s leading-edge position is in jeopardy.
The promise of cancer research has never been brighter — for instance, take Juno Therapeutics’ groundbreaking work to genetically engineer the body’s immune cells to fight cancer, which built on work from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Overall, Washington is one of the top states in the country for receiving research funding.
But the local research community also faces increasing hurdles for funding. Federal support is on the wane, starting with the wrongheaded policy of sequestration. U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., is leading an effort to find a more stable level of investment. But the investment power of the National Institutes of Health funding has declined by nearly one-quarter over the past decade.
Other states have stepped into the gap, elevating their funding to compete for research grants and for top-tier researchers. Florida’s 2015 budget adds $80 million for a cancer-research institute supported by Gov. Rick Scott. Closer to home, Oregon lawmakers authorized $200 million in bonds to draw talent to the Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. Both Texas and California have multi-billion-dollar funds to seed research.
It’s no coincidence that some hotshot young researchers in the Seattle area have already been poached by Texas and New York institutions, and that Oregon is actively recruiting.
Washington’s version is the Life Sciences Discovery Fund, which dispenses research grants with a portion of the national tobacco settlement. But it has been treated by lawmakers like a piggy bank to cover budget deficits. Since 2008, only $105 million of the $200 million flowing into the fund from the 1998 tobacco settlement has actually been issued in grants. Just last year, the fund was targeted for elimination, surviving only with Gov. Jay Inslee’s veto.
Even without these budgetary mistakes, the portion of the tobacco settlement flowing into the Life Sciences Discovery Fund ends in 2018. New action is needed.
The Legislature needs to get smarter to compete in the cancer-research field. The state’s two top budget-writers, Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, and Sen. Andy Hill, R-Redmond, are cancer survivors themselves and understand the need.
Both lawmakers support new methods to boost the state’s cancer-research investment. Hill’s budget proposal would add a $100 monthly surcharge to smokers on state employee health-care plans. Hunter backs a 50-cent-a-pack increase in tobacco taxes.
Either plan would up the state’s game and put Washington on better footing to compete for talent and to preserve the state’s hard-earned reputation for excellence in cancer research.