Life Sciences Discovery Fund On Pins and Needles During Budget Talks (Again)

Xconomy Seattle — 

The state budget being hashed out in Olympia is spreading angst far and wide, and you can bet Washington state’s biotech community will feel it this time.

The Life Sciences Discovery Fund, the program championed by Gov. Chris Gregoire to foster more biotech innovations and jobs in Washington, is being primed for what looks like another round of deep cuts. The fund’s executive director, Lee Huntsman, says that while Gregoire’s budget proposal in December included $27 million this year for the state biotech financing operation, the House proposed budget has zero money allocated for it, and the newly released Senate version sets aside $10 million.

No matter what the final number ends up being when the negotiating is done, it’s going to be a lot less than the $35 million annual figure that was projected when the Life Sciences Discovery Fund got up and running three years ago. The fund is supported by bonus payments that Washington gets for having played a lead role in the 1998 legal landmark settlement between states and tobacco companies. The vision for the Life Sciences Discovery Fund, which Gregoire pushed hard for, was to spend $350 million over 10 years on R&D projects that could have an impact on healthcare, and foster economic growth in the state.

The actual spending hasn’t lived up to the original projections. The Life Sciences Discovery Fund took a 41 percent cut in April 2009. That was when lawmakers were struggling with a $9 billion budget shortfall over a two-year cycle. This time, the state is said to have a $5 billion budget hole in the two-year spending plan, which is prompting lawmakers, again, to propose lots of unpopular things, like reduced support for higher education and pay cuts for state employees and teachers.

Lee Huntsman

Huntsman says he has been to Olympia several times lately to talk with lawmakers about the Life Sciences Discovery Fund, and how it is doing. The agency has made a number of investments in interesting projects for vaccines, genomics, and open source biology, but the report card at this point could best be described as incomplete. Huntsman has been emphasizing that the researchers who win Discovery Fund grants go on to leverage that with lots of extra support from the federal government and foundations, so this isn’t a case of the state propping up some dead-end ideas.

Maybe it was just getting to be a long day when we spoke on the phone, but Huntsman sounded a little weary of reciting the same old lines defending his agency’s existence. The Life Sciences Discovery Fund, he says, “was a good idea. It has worked out really well. It would sure be cool to continue, because it provides a lot of health benefit, and economic benefit.”

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