Life Sciences Research in Washington Delivers Economic Punch

4/23/14Follow @bromano

In addition to novel therapies, improved crops, and cleaner fuels, life sciences research at University of Washington and Washington State University delivers a multibillion-dollar economic boost to the state.

Research and development spending by Washington state universities exceeded $1.5 billion in fiscal year 2010, with more than half of that spent in life sciences fields at UW and WSU, according to a report being released today.

That research spending in life sciences translates to an estimated $2.4 billion in state economic activity—wages of researchers and staff, spending on supplies—and 16,000 jobs, according to a common economic impact modeling tool.

The report, “Innovation and Impact—Academic and Industry Collaboration in Washington State’s Life Sciences Research Enterprise,” was led by WSU interim vice president of research Nancy Magnuson and UW vice provost for research Mary Lidstrom and focuses on broad fields including agricultural, biological, and medical sciences.

While it notes many examples of the commercialization of technologies and research breakthroughs made at state universities, it does not attempt to quantify the specific economic impact of this facet of research output in the state. But the universities are undoubtedly a key source of innovation for Washington life sciences companies.

About a third of the state’s medical devices and biotechnology companies have used technologies developed at WSU, UW, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, the Institute for Systems Biology, or other research hubs, the report says, citing Washington Biotechnology and Biomedical Association research.

The report gathers information from the state’s research universities and other sources, such as the Washington Research Council, which pegged the life sciences sector as Washington’s fifth-largest employer. There were 15,674 full-time jobs at UW in the life sciences (including not just research but also clinical care, administration, and teaching) in fiscal year 2012. WSU had more than 2,400 life sciences jobs. Overall, there are some 500 life sciences employers in the state.

The report could help inform the debate as Washington state weighs support for research against a mandate to increase funding for K-12 education. The Life Sciences Discovery Fund, for example, nearly had its funding cut in the last legislative session.

The majority of life sciences research spending in the state is at UW—the nation’s top public university recipient of federal research funding—where the School of Medicine and other specialty research institutes claim the lion’s share. More than $458 million went toward medical sciences at the UW in fiscal year 2010. The report notes that “institutions with medical schools typically receive about 10 times the research funds of the non-medical school institutions, largely due to the amount of funding available” from federal sources including the National Institutes of Health and Department of Health and Human Services.

(It’s worth noting that WSU this spring began looking into establishing a medical school of its own in Spokane, WA, in response to a projected doctor shortage. The plan could put the state’s two universities at loggerheads.)

Not to be overlooked in all of this accounting for economic impacts is the intrinsic value of life sciences research.

“The value of research that supports the wellbeing of so many cannot be measured solely in monetary terms,” the report’s authors note. “Outcomes also include improved quality of life achieved through more effective treatments and diagnostic procedures, enhanced nutrition and preventive measures, increased environmental sustainability, and family and community economic stability.”

The report can be found here (PDF).

Benjamin Romano is editor of Xconomy Seattle. Email him at bromano [at] xconomy.com. Follow @bromano

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