Losing ground in the research race

A survey of our assets and their funding shows that we do not have a clear strategy and some key programs are being defunded. Here's a wake-up call about this most critical sector of our modern global economy.

UW researchers deploy the Sea Spider in Admiralty Inlet.

UW researchers deploy the Sea Spider in Admiralty Inlet. Courtesy of Brian Polayge

Hiding in our region’s labs behind racks of test tubes, electron microscopes, and spectrometers are researchers, lab technicians, computer programmers, and the other highly talented people who comprise our research community. We talk about the need to be innovative to compete in a changing global economy. Our scientists and researchers and their support staff are at the heart of the innovation process. Their test tubes are the hope for reviving our economy.

We enjoy a wide range of research in our region. This research is an entire "industry cluster" and a major employer in our region. Research should not be treated as an addendum to other clusters but as a separate industry. Once you look at it as an industry, you examine how to make it stronger. I asked our staff at the Trade Alliance, working with the Technology Alliance, to create a brochure like those we had previously developed on IT, biotech, and aerospace. Then end product was called “Greater Seattle and Washington State: A Center of World Class Research.” It became one of our bestselling brochures.

Recently I went on the Global Health Tour of the region, organized by the Prosperity Partnership and the Global Health Alliance. Global Health is but one part of our research community. Traveling through the South Lake Union neighborhood, we visited PATH, Seattle Biomedical, and the Institute for Systems Biology and heard from researchers at the Hutchinson Center, UW, and others. They presented the products, services, and contributions to world health that came out of these organizations.

The primary components of funding for this sector are at the federal, state, and private levels. The federal government provides funding through agencies such as NIH, USAID, NSF, and DOD among others. There is a threat to federal research both from the deficit reduction efforts and the anti-science philosophy of certain members of Congress. The state government does a little, although some of this has also been cut. Charitable entities such as the Gates Foundation play a significant role. Business gives money both in the corporate interest and through community giving and employee associations. Individuals give to such institutions as the Hutch. 

To make a competitive country, one needs selective infrastructure, education, and research.  To cut those building blocks is counterproductive to creating a successful economy and creating employment opportunities. If our country had a competitive strategy and made an aggressive effort to increase trade and lower the deficit, research would be at the top of the agenda.

Using funds from the tobacco settlement, Washington state supports growth in our biotech industry.  It developed a successful research program with the Life Science Discovery Fund (LSDF). The metrics on the LSDF grants were excellent, but very few in Olympia wanted to hear the numbers when they were scrambling to preserve basic services. The budget for the LSDF was cut from over $30 million to $4 million. The two research universities were also cut. The legislature is not thinking strategically, but rather getting through the next revenue forecast and hoping for a recovery.

However, in the last session, the legislature established a small new program, the Global Health Technologies Competitiveness Fund, whose first grants have been awarded. Another positive step was the creation of Innovate Washington, a technology-based economic development agency formed from the merger of Washington Technology Center and SIRTI (formerly the Spokane Intercollegiate Research and Technology Institute). The merger creates a single organization that assists innovative companies statewide with their technology-commercialization needs.

According to a recent Innovate Washington announcement, this organization combines the nationally recognized business-assistance programs of WTC and SIRTI and adds a new industry-cluster-based strategy, with an initial focus on coordinating Washington’s clean energy initiatives. The role of the agency is to facilitate research supportive of state industries and provide mechanisms for collaboration between technology-based industries and universities. It helps businesses secure research funds, develops and integrates technology into new products, and offers technology transfer and commercialization-training opportunities. It aims to serve as the lead entity for coordinating clean energy initiatives and to administer technology and innovation grants and loan programs. 


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Comments:

Posted Wed, Sep 28, 4:20 p.m. Inappropriate

The author did not say a word about all the world class ag research that takes place in the Northwest. The fruit industry just committed to give WSU $27 million.

Granger

Posted Fri, Sep 30, 10:06 a.m. Inappropriate

"Public leadership and the general public are beginning to understand what our business leaders know, that new circumstances and a new reality require a new strategy and approach." Yes, beginning, at best. The unfortunate truth is that despite the most challenging environment since the 1930's, our elected officials do not have nearly enough understanding of the issues Mr. Stafford raises. Many still bask in complacency, and assume that private sector and public sector research nodes will just magically produce an innovation ecosystem without electeds at the city, county, and state levels lifting a finger. Believe me, metropolitan regions around the country from Boston to San Francisco to Raleigh-Durham are under no such illusions. We need a public long-term investment policy, which begins with creating a road map of research institutions, private sector agents, and government enabling entities. The private sector is creating synergies on its own, the public sector needs to step up to the plate.

In closing, I find it ironic indeed that there is only one comment listed so far on this article. That speaks volumes as to how much the public at large gets the importance of this issue.

TomB

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