Florida, increase momentum in biomedical research
This op-ed appeared Jan. 11 in the Orlando Sentinel.
By: Douglas J. Barrett, M.D.
Doug Barrett, M.D., is senior vice president for health affairs at the University of Florida.
Floridians don’t always agree on things. Remember the presidential election of 2000? That’s why a recent survey showing Florida citizens’ overwhelming support for medical and health research is so striking.
Conducted by Research!America, a respected national nonprofit research-advocacy group, the November survey of 800 Floridians revealed that 96 percent agree it is important for Florida to be a leader in medical and health research, with about nine of 10 describing this goal as “very important.” Proving their support is more than just talk, an impressive 59 percent said they would be willing to pay $1 more per week in taxes to finance expanded medical and health research in Florida.
Our public officials and members of Florida’s biomedical research community need to respond to such a show of unanimity and commitment. Gov. Jeb Bush made building Florida into a biotechnology research powerhouse a cornerstone of his administration. With Bush’s departure from office, Gov. Charlie Crist and other state leaders have the opportunity to build on this recent momentum and respond to citizens’ aspirations.
When it comes to health and medical research, Florida has some serious catching up to do. Despite our state being the fourth-largest, we do not have a national “brand name” medical research center that ranks with the likes of Johns Hopkins, Michigan, Duke or Stanford. Evidence for this opinion was presented in Research! America’s survey, in which more than half of respondents couldn’t come up with the name of a single Florida institution where health and medical research are conducted.
Fortunately, that’s beginning to change. State officials have recently begun to invest in the life-sciences research infrastructure. At the University of Florida, we are two years deep into a five-year plan that will add more than 600,000 square feet of state-of-the-art laboratory space. Combined with growth in the biomedical research programs at Florida’s other academic medical centers, the development of new state medical schools in Orlando and Miami and, above all, the recruitment of private biotech players Scripps, Burnham and Torrey Pines, Florida is developing a constellation of life-sciences research clusters that could have multibillion-dollar effects on the state’s economy. In fact, the recruitment of the Burnham Institute for Medical Research to Orange County perfectly illustrates what can be accomplished when local and state governments, the university system and the private sector work together. UF researchers are excited at the prospect of working with Burnham scientists on their Lake Nona campus.
Attracting established out-of-state biotech enterprises to set up shop here is one way to grow the research base. And yet this “acquisition” approach to growth is relatively expensive. It should always be a supplement to a grow-your-own philosophy — both public and private — that should represent the vast majority of the state’s investment in health and medical-research capacity. Why? Because with time, grow-your-own presents a much stronger return on investment for the state.
Here’s an example from UF’s Health Science Center:
A few years ago, on the suggestion of a sharp-eyed faculty member, the university spent $175,000 in institutional funds to develop a database of genetic samples to serve as the foundation for future research projects. Amazingly, over the next four years, that database has been crucial to our ability to attract more than $16 million in project support from the National Institutes of Health and private industry.
To be sure, not every investment yields such large returns so quickly. But this example demonstrates how, over time, relatively modest but thoughtful investments in the productive capacity of our universities and biomedical-research institutions can yield big returns. Indeed, these expenditures have a power akin to compound interest in a retirement account, producing the real economic wealth that will foster the development of new therapies, improved health status and high-paying jobs.
If we want to continue the upward trajectory of health and medical research in Florida, it will be important for our state’s leaders to continue to carefully nurture and invest in our existing research universities while remaining poised to seize attractive new opportunities.
Clearly, we cannot afford to sit idle. A number of other states are already ahead of us or laying plans to either get in the game or maintain their competitive advantage. States such as California, Wisconsin, Missouri and New Jersey have made long-term investments of hundreds of millions of dollars to the benefit of their university-based research and their state’s economic development. They’re creating an atmosphere in which scientists can vigorously pursue their work in the only place that matters: at the cutting edge.
If we hope to stay in that game, I believe our state will have to answer. And about as unanimously as possible, Floridians agree.
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