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.

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UW researchers deploy the Sea Spider in Admiralty Inlet.

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.

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. 

As participants in a recent Trade Alliance and Seattle Chamber Study Mission learned, Scotland provides a good model of this systematic approach to commercializing research. A research council awards grants. For example, if the University of Edinburgh sees commercial possibilities in some research, Enterprise Scotland is notified. A case worker is assigned to assist the process with various interventions until either a product is developed or the attempt is dropped. Another part of Enterprise Scotland assists with the marketing of the product throughout the world.

The private sector is also a major contributor to our research expertise. Microsoft operates a research center, said to be the largest of its kind in the world, with a budget of over $1 billion. Children’s Hospital, Swedish Hospital, Benaroya Research Institute at Virginia Mason Hospital, Boeing — all these have significant research arms. Our advantage is that we have many different disciplines located in a small region and people can easily meet. The Institute of Systems Biology brings this cross-disciplinary approach into one organization.

One way to increase the effectiveness of these investments in research would be to do an economic impact assessment of all our research assets. How many and what kind of research jobs are there? How can we enhance this economic sector? How can our universities and community colleges prepare the researchers and lab technicians of the future?  How do we enhance this state and the Puget Sound region as one of the world’s great centers of science and research?

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.  The global competitiveness league is reaching parity, and we can no longer coast with our old game plan. We need to capitalize better on our key assets, the research universities. The researchers must better understand that they need to assist in this effort, lest there be a further erosion of their funding. Finally, we need to strengthen what little we do to promote the business of the future, particularly by restoring the Life Science Discovery Fund.

"Research centers and institutions are indisputably the most important factors in incubating high-tech industries,” asserts the Milken Institute in a study of American’s high tech economy.  A UW publication notes that universities are the engine of the knowledge-based economy.  “The last half of the 20th century has witnessed the most explosive growth in scientific discovery in all human history. From the proverbial astronomy to zoology, each day brings a new report of expanded frontiers.  Although not all these discoveries can be translated directly or immediately into products that we will purchase at our local shopping mall, many of them will directly affect our lives sooner than we realize.”


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