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'Sublime vapidity'? Senate's budget would toss health science research fund

The Senate's most recent budget would toss funding for healthcare and biotech research that has generated an estimated $1 billion economic impact.

More than fifteen years ago, Washington wrung $4.5 billion from big tobacco companies in a legal settlement involving 45 other states. The money — to be paid out over two and a half decades — was supposed to support public health.

Last week in Olympia, the state Senate passed a supplemental budget that would shutter one of the programs funded with that tobacco-settlement money — the Life Sciences Discovery Fund (LSDF). For the last seven years, the fund has sponsored research on medical treatments for problems like cancer, stroke, diabetes and drug addiction.

The fund estimates that its projects have generated $1 billion in economic activity and saved $67 million in health care costs (thanks largely to one especially successful project to establish better protocols for surgeries across the state).

About half of the funding from LSDF has gone to research projects at UW — the rest to Washington State University, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and a few small businesses, including some biotech start-ups.

“It would be particularly devastating on small companies that we fund,” said John DesRosier, executive director of LSDF. “We're trying to help them become more competitive for investor-funding, and an awful lot of the work that they're doing right now is really funded by LSDF.”

The Senate budget would force the program to shut down in June. This would abruptly end research already in progress — including projects to develop new cancer drugs, a tool for diagnosing inner-ear infections,  a shunt for draining excess fluid from the brain and a field test for water pollution, according to information provided by LSDF.

Norman Arkans, University of Washington’s associate vice president for media relations and communications, was incredulous. “This is not good public policy and very short-sighted,” he said.

“This is the most funding I've seen that the state puts toward research. It's an investment in the health and prosperity of the people in the state and in advancing science so that we can cure some of the diseases that ravage people here.”  

The Life Sciences Discovery Fund was born in 2005 from a campaign promise made by then-incoming-Governor Christine Gregoire. The plan was to use tobacco settlement money to champion the growth of the state’s biotech industry.

It’s one of a set of health-related programs funded by the settlement, including a program to finance low-income health insurance, and one of the most effective smoking-prevention programs in the country.

But the original vision for the tobacco-settlement money has withered over the years, as lawmakers have hacked away at the budget.

In each of its first two years of state funding, the Life Sciences Discovery Fund received about $30 million. In 2010, its funding was effectively cut in half. The next year, lawmakers steeply cut the program’s funding to about $5 million and redirected the money to public health services. Last year, the fund received $8.7 million.

Last Friday, a group of about four-dozen researchers and biotech entrepreneurs presented a letter to Sen. Rodney Tom and several other lawmakers, asking the state to save the program. “Current LSDF grants are helping to drive the innovation that will create the future of health care,” they wrote.

An editorial in the Herald of Everett put it more bluntly, calling the elimination “an act of sublime vapidity.”

Madeline Ostrander is a Seattle-based freelance writer and a contributing editor to YES! Magazine.


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