Can Massachusetts Win the Life Sciences World Series?

11/12/07

A little while ago, I had the honor of traveling to Beacon Hill, where I testified before the joint committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies. The matter at hand was House Bill number 4238, a.k.a. Governor Patrick’s Life Sciences Initiative. The hearing began just after lunchtime with a kick-off address from Gov. Patrick that ended with an enormous wave of cheering and applause…from outside of the building, as the hearing was scheduled at the same time as the Red Sox World Series victory parade, which was just rolling by.

Nevertheless, Gov. Patrick struck a fine tone with the group, and at the conclusion of his remarks Senator Hart (the committee chair) observed the overall importance of biotechnology to the future of jobs and healthcare in the Commonwealth. It was a good start, and a far cry from the media circus I found under the golden dome during the stem cell hearings in 2003.

I was part of a small contingent from academia and, wearing my one and only suit, delivered testimony urging the legislature to give serious consideration to the Governor’s plan. As an aside and for the record, I specifically pushed for two areas: bridge funding for young faculty (see my post elsewhere on this at “The New Valley of Death”) and money for stem cells.

That said, it took some three hours or so to be recognized, as one after another, various executive branch folks and other elected officials took their turns at the podium—including Representative Koutoujian and Secretaries Bigby (Health and Human Services), O’Connell (Housing and Economic Development), and Bump (Labor and Workforce Development). One by one, each provided remarks urging support for the $1 billion plan. The day was truly remarkable from my perspective as there seemed to be no naysayers (save for one disgruntled citizen in the gallery). Various committee members had serious questions for the speakers, though mostly for Secretary O’Connell, as he also chairs the seven-member Massachusetts Life Sciences Center (MLSC) and thus controls the checkbook for the whole enchilada.

The most direct questioning came from Senator Tucker (Second Essex and Middlesex), when she asked O’Connell, “What are the non-negotiables in the bill?” She pressed O’Connell further by asking him to detail what he would cut from the Governor’s plan if only one-half the requested funding was available. The Secretary stuck to his guns by observing that the whole package was important and that a good expenditure of effort would not be to find ways to shave programs but, rather, to convince the taxpayers that the entire bill was worth it. Some other lines of questioning and commentary seemed to revolve around a bit of discomfort with the large degree of centralized authority within the bill—meaning positions under the Governor’s control and beyond the reach of the legislature. I would be surprised if the final version of the package, which seemed on the fast track to me, didn’t spread responsibility and authority around a little more. Certainly, there are some kinks to be ironed out in this, but it was my impression that the committee felt it was a very good project overall.

The bill looked promising from where I was sitting, and I can have a grant proposal ready in 24 hours if anyone on Beacon Hill is reading this. That said, I’d like to know how good this bill looks to the private sector. My own point of view is narrow; that of an academician interested in funding and regulations that control laboratory research. Grants get the attention of everyone in research universities and hospitals. However, the bulk of Gov. Patrick’s plan seems to revolve around incentives to life sciences businesses—things like tax breaks, write-offs, and expedited permitting. How attractive are these carrots? As a person who has worked on finding ways to stimulate the interest that life sciences companies have in state research funding, I wonder if research grants are as attractive to the private sector as these other, non-cash components in the Governor’s plan? Are the states that are hoping to lure companies within their borders by giving grants alone even in the same ballpark with others like Massachusetts, which are offering different incentives? I’m certainly interested to find out, though I think I already know the answer.

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