Scripps Florida is About Science, not Real Estate
This article appeared in the Gainesville Sun, Tallahassee Democrat, Tampa Tribune and the Miami Herald.
By: Win Phillips
Win Phillips is Vice President for Research at the University of Florida
News that the Scripps Research Institute is devising a Florida exit strategy because of continued delays over construction of its Palm Beach County headquarters should be a wakeup call to Floridians concerned about the state’s growth and economic well-being.
Whatever legitimate concerns there may be about the Mecca Farms site, Scripps Florida’s departure would not only be a huge opportunity lost. It would hamper the state’s ambitions to play a leading role in perhaps this century’s most important industry: biotechnology. Florida’s universities would also suffer from the loss of this one-of-a-kind scientific institution whose strengths as ally and collaborator are only starting to emerge.
When Gov. Jeb Bush announced plans in 2003 for La Jolla, California-based Scripps to establish a sister campus in Florida, the reaction was almost universally positive. But what began as an optimistic discussion about science and economic opportunity rapidly devolved into a controversy over land and development. Environmental and land-use concerns about Scripps’ proposed location at the Mecca Farms orange grove overwhelmed the public agenda. As a result, the path-breaking research that Scripps planned for its Florida facility has been all but forgotten.
There’s no question the development site is an important consideration. Scripps, Palm Beach County, residents, the environmental community and other stakeholders have every right to debate the land-use issues in a public forum. But ultimately, Scripps Florida is not about land. It’s about science.
And where science is concerned, the Scripps project is a winner.
Twenty-first century science has several important elements. Scripps Florida covers them all:
- Discovery. As the world’s largest non-profit biomedical center, Scripps has already made important advances in deciphering the root causes of ailments ranging from Alzheimer’s disease to cancer. Its researchers have every intention of furthering that work in Florida. Among Scripps’ chief goals: Translating the California campus’ basic research into marketable therapeutic drugs. Three of Scripps’ researchers are Nobel Prize winners, just one piece of evidence boding for the institute’s success.
- Synergy. Biomedical science requires collaborations among specialists in diverse fields as well as extremely sensitive and expensive facilities. The University of Florida is home to a massive research enterprise that last year drew more than $400 million in grants. UF and other Florida universities host expert faculty, graduate students and equipment that Scripps wants — and needs — to tap. Scripps’ temporary building at Florida Atlantic University’s Jupiter campus just opened in March, yet these collaborations are already taking shape. UF and Scripps researchers, for example, are pursuing a formal alliance related to Scripps’ drug-development efforts.
- Commercialization. Although it won’t happen overnight, there’s no question Scripps will serve as a magnet for startups, established firms and venture capitalists, helping to grow Florida’s small but vibrant biotech community. Besides major research institutions at UF and the University of Miami, Florida has an ample patient and clinical base. “The buzz alone generated by Scripps is very important for both the money and the executives, Donn Szaro, an Ernst & Young executive, told Florida Trend last year. Creative capitalists are looking for places to invest.
Florida lawmakers and Palm Beach County officials committed an astonishingly generous $569 million in public funds to buy the land for Scripps and build the institute’s research facility. Sold on the scientific and economic promise Scripps held for Florida, state taxpayers largely supported the expenditure — support no doubt bolstered by personal and often devastating experiences with the diseases that Scripps hopes to help cure.
“Location” is the classic adage in real estate, but science is different. The computer revolution may have started in Palo Alto, but it changed California and the world. As Scripps’ commitment wavers over 2,000 empty acres in northern Palm Beach County, each party in this dispute should remember that.
For all Floridians’ sake, let’s not botch this closing.