Cutting-edge research is whittled by state

The state's Life Sciences Discovery Fund grew out of the tobacco settlement with big hopes for promoting health and jobs in Washington. But even with employment looking good in the biotechnology area, politicians are pulling back on investment.

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Gov. Chris Gregoire at a Langley rally during the 2008 campaign, when political winds were blowing in favor of Democrats.

The state's Life Sciences Discovery Fund grew out of the tobacco settlement with big hopes for promoting health and jobs in Washington. But even with employment looking good in the biotechnology area, politicians are pulling back on investment.

Washington's money to boost its life sciences research, an area in which the state has put many of its economic hopes, is getting leaner and leaner as the state deals with its budget woes.

Today, the state's Life Sciences Discovery Fund is receiving less than 15 percent annually of what was originally envisioned. The reason is that the state legislature has been siphoning off the money to to fight the seemingly endless budget shortfalls, which are drastically slicing K-12 and higher education, health and human services.

In 2005, Gov. Chris Gregoire and the Legislature set up a program to spend $350 million — supposedly $35 million a year from 2008 though 2017 — to bolster life sciences research and turn that research into jobs. The money comes from part of an annual lawsuit settlement payment from tobacco companies to numerous states, including Washington.

The actual tobacco payments and allocations for research from the Life Sciences Discovery Fund turned out to be close to the projections, about $33 million each in fiscal 2008 and fiscal 2009. Then the legislature began dipping into Washington's tobacco settlement revenues to pay for other programs, sending less than $15 million to life sciences research in 2010 and about $5 million in 2011. The predicted figures for 2012 and 2013 appear on track to be between $4.5 million and $6 million.

Only $41 million in total has been actually paid to research projects so far. That money, however, has been used to leverage another $278 million worth of other investments in 51 companies.

"We'll obviously be adjusting to the revenue that is available" said Lee Huntsman, executive director of the Washington Life Sciences Discovery Fund.

At the annual meeting of the Washington Biotechnology & Biomedical Association in Bellevue earlier this month, Gregoire praised the fund, which led in setting up. But she also acknowledged that the state's budget woes are cutting appropriations to the Life Sciences Discovery Fund.

"I'm determined to ensure it succeeds. When the economy does recover — and I'm sure the economy will recover — we need to increase the money immediately which has been cut," Gregoire told at least 700 people at the meeting.

Gregoire sees life sciences research leading to drug and medical technologies that can be exported to China, Japan and Canada. "Even as the economy is struggling, you are prospering. You are creating badly needed jobs. ... Our hope is to weave small companies into a huge, growing network — that is exports," Gregoire said.

The fund has allocated in 51 grants with the majority in the program's early years. The grants are scattered across the state, although the biggest number have gone to University of Washington and Washington State University research.

Projects range from brain, breast cancer, and blood and diabetes research; developing technologies for human cell therapies; creating gluten-free wheat; improving surgery safety in at least three-quarters of the state's hospitals; helping rural communities deal with mental health and substance abuse issues; developing "smart home" technology for the elderly; and providing gene sequencing equipment for researchers. Other research addresses early detection of tooth decay and systemic shock as well as help in diagnosing back pain.

Chris Rivera, president of the Washington Biotechnology & Biomedical Association, said biopharmaceutical development and medical technology development have created at least 33,000 direct jobs in Washington as well as at least 57,000 additional indirect jobs to support them. That translates to about 450 firms in 70 cities. Three quarters of those firms are private biopharma or biotech companies with the rest scattered across other ventures.

The association's online job listings recorded 9,000 online searches for jobs so far in 2011, he said.

"We can't take this sector for granted," Rivera said.

But maintaining support for the fund is likely to remain challenging. During the last legislative session, House Democrats proposed a budget that would have zeroed out funding over two years that Gregoire had initially proposed at $27 million.


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About the Authors & Contributors

John Stang

John Stang

John Stang is a freelance writer who often covers state government and the environment. He can be reached on email at and on Twitter at @johnstang_8