Friday, May 11, 2007

Biotech Worth State Investment

There's a talking point going around in opposition to Governor Deval Patrick's $1 billion plan to invest in biotechnology that is embodied by this Boston Herald editorial. The argument is that while it's all well and good the Patrick wants to lure biotech jobs here, it's not the state's job to invest directly in companies because there are venture capital firms for that. Meanwhile, the Herald adds that no venture capital firm is going to repair Storrow Drive, so the state shouldn't spend money on encouraging biotech while there are other priorities.

Never mind that that editorial occurred in the same newspaper that reported the Governor's push to end neglect of the Storrow Drive tunnel on that same day. It seems to me that this argument ignores the long history of government grants to scientific research, and the fact that the state has investments in all sorts of companies -- unless you think the state pension board socks all of its money under mattresses. It also overestimates the amount of money that venture capitalists are willing to gamble on an emerging field, as detailed by today's Globe. But, even apart from that, it also does not take into account the fact that decisions made by California, New Jersey and Connecticut already rendered any discussion of whether the state should encourage stem cell research entirely academic. The fact is, other states are funding this research and if we don't get in on the action, Massachusetts is the state that stands to lose the most. After all, one out of seven jobs in biotech worldwide is here in the Commonwealth. Any expansion of this research outside of the state hurts us more than anyone else. As the biotech convention showed, there are many many other localities just waiting to lure away our companies. California is not threatening to take Storrow Drive away.

Of course, the other thing that these critics never seem to mention is the part of the proposal which would create, in effect, a lending-library for stem cell lines at UMass Medical School. This is an amazing opportunity for UMass and for the Worcester area and it does not seem at all likely that it would be something the private sector could be able to duplicate given the way it brought together researchers who don't generally work together.

It seems to me that with this plan, the Governor is killing three birds with one stone. He's investing in UMass, and growing the economy by luring jobs here, which in turn will raise state revenues. It of course is not risk-free, there's always the possibility that the biotech industry will cool off, but the risk of inaction -- of other states and countries stealing our current crop of biotech firms away -- is much more serious.