We love research in Washington state — at least you would think so. The Legislature approved the governor's Life Sciences Discovery...
We love research in Washington state — at least you would think so.
The Legislature approved the governor’s Life Sciences Discovery Fund. And the state House of Representatives passed a resolution in March acknowledging the state’s higher-education institutions “for inspiring our imaginations, for bringing economic and social benefits to our state, and for charting a better future for our students and our citizens.”
Nice sentiment, to be sure. And, for all the talk about research in Olympia during the just-concluded legislative session, the average Washington resident probably believes the state invested heavily in these engines of economic development.
If only it were so.
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Fact is, the Legislature invested only minimal new money in research at the state’s two research universities. The University of Washington got $950,000 for a Tacoma autism center and infant brain research. (This biennium, it received two-and-a-half times that amount.) And Washington State University got $400,000 for ghost-shrimp control in Willapa Bay. The Legislature actually cut both universities’ ongoing research funding by 1 percent.
I don’t mean to diminish the commitment to the Life Sciences Discovery Fund. It’s an admirable statement that Washington wants to establish itself as a center for bioscience research and compete with other states. Californians just passed a breathtaking $3 billion fund for stem-cell research.
The new Washington law enables $350 million coming from the multistate tobacco settlement between 2008-17 to go into a fund earmarked for research grants. The governor hopes other contributions will bring the fund to $1 billion and that it could spawn 20,000 jobs, possibly creating about 6,000 directly.
But the first grant is a few years off. I’m confounded the Legislature ignored opportunities for major and quicker impact by leveraging its existing research infrastructure.
Two relatively small investments at the UW would have generated directly as many jobs in one decade as the new Discovery Fund promises in two.
All lawmakers had to do was appropriate $2.4 million annually from its operating budget to support the second phase of a South Lake Union biomedical research complex. The project is an extension of the UW School of Medicine, which attracted $450 million this year, ranking it first among public medical schools for federal research grants. The Bioengineering and Genome Sciences Buildings in the University District needed about $2 million. The governor supported both, but the Legislature came up with nothing.
Expected to open in January, the U-District project is being built mostly with private donations, including $70 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Get this: While the state is contributing zip, the government of Singapore has ponied up $10 million to support shared research projects. Singapore.
Public investment is key to these projects because federal grant awarders look for local commitment before they throw their money in. Now, the UW will have to find the money elsewhere.
Across the state in Pullman, WSU officials are licking their wounds after the Legislature refused to fund its top-priority Biotechnology/Life Sciences Building. Instead, WSU got a much-lower-priority nursing building in Spokane and student-services building in Vancouver. The effect is the university expects to lose $5 million in matching federal research money.
The Life Sciences Building was high on the consensus capital project list constructed by the state’s six university presidents — a slate that seemed all but ignored as influential lawmakers pushed their own pet projects and claimed WSU was gaming the list. But officials at other universities also are wondering why the Legislature ignored the list, while it meticulously followed the community-college system’s requests.
After talking to several lawmakers and higher-ed types, I feel like a playground monitor trying to sort out a snarl of hurt feelings and misunderstandings.
My verdict? Off to the principal’s office, Democratic leaders who let a political snit get in the way of the best interests of the state. Sure, the nursing building was needed … eventually. But the Life Sciences Building would have more far-reaching impact on our state, and sooner.
The Discovery Fund makes for a breathtaking headline about Washington’s commitment to research.
But lawmakers blew opportunities to do a much better job of milking its existing research infrastructure for cutting-edge advancements and economic benefit.
Kate Riley’s column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org