An Investment In New Ideas Comes With Changing Leadership

January 12, 2009
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President-elect Barack Obama is on record with a commitment to double federal funding for basic scientific research over the next decade. After five years of flat National Institutes of Health funding, this is good news for several reasons.

The first reason is simple. Without advances in basic knowledge, there will be no improvements in treatments and medical technology for cancer, heart disease or neurological diseases that currently claim millions of lives each year. The two go hand in hand. However, basic research is also a sound investment in new ideas with the promise of not just a humanitarian return but an economic one, as well.

Since 2000, 112 new bioscience companies have been created in Michigan, making the state’s life sciences industry one of the fastest growing in the nation. That industry currently employs more than 33,000, with the creation of almost four times as many indirect jobs, and pays an average salary of more than $67,000. The state’s university research corridor attracts more than $1.4 billion in research funding annually, ranking 11th in the nation.

As the nation moves forward into the economic realities of a new century, it faces increased international competition in a new, more dynamic economy based on knowledge, problem solving and advanced skills and technology. It is imperative that the state of Michigan cultivate the kinds of nimble and adaptable industries that hold the promise for the creation of new discoveries and new jobs.

Despite the encouraging news on the life sciences front, Michigan has unfortunately been a bellwether state for a nation facing the uncertainty of an economic crisis whose dimensions are as yet undetermined and whose end seems nowhere in sight. Thousands of individuals and businesses face foreclosure, financial instability and bankruptcy, while state and local governments increasingly seek federal assistance. A severe crisis in the automotive industry could provoke further chaos for the thousands of families in Michigan and throughout the nation who depend on the sustainability of the industry for their livelihood.

It will be a challenge for President Obama to keep all of his campaign pledges in the face of the myriad constituencies clamoring at the congressional purse strings and in the wake of an unforeseen $700 billion financial market bailout, which represents dollars spent to overcome bad ideas rather than an investment in promising new ones.

As the nation forges ahead into an international arena of new economic realities and looks to compete in a global market, it is important to keep in mind that the old ways of doing business will doom us as surely as they doomed the New England mill town and the U.S. steel industry. We must adapt and diversify.

If Michigan is going to be competitive, the politicians in Lansing and the voters who send them there must decide on a coherent vision for the future and a way of getting there that includes investments in new and emerging industries to strengthen our work force and economy.

The state and its stakeholders have a lot of work to do in deciding what types of industries it ultimately plans to incubate, attract and support. Developing inducements and attracting venture capital while maintaining the state’s infrastructure without an undue tax burden are ongoing issues that need to be addressed and resolved immediately.

The life sciences represent one promising sector of Michigan’s economy that is flourishing from an investment in new ideas. As the state debates its economic future, the life science industry stands poised to benefit from an increase in National Institutes of Health funding. Imagine what kind of changes the industry could make with just a portion of the $700 billion bailout currently being spent to overcome years of ineffective policy and bad ideas. Imagine the types of people and the amount of talent that would attract, and the impact it would have on our state and its residents.

I’d also like to pose a question: What has it meant to the nation and to those suffering from disease not to have increased NIH funding over the past five years? How many students have finished Ph.D.’s only to find that funding for their area of research has dried up? How many new ideas and potential cures have we lost? And how long will it take to recover? Losing the momentum in the struggle against cancer and other life-threatening diseases would be devastating.

Some might refer to these events of the past five years on both the national and state levels as representing an era of uncertainty. I think they might more appropriately be called an era of lost opportunity.

The United States has led the world in innovation and discovery thanks to our investments in basic research. If we are to continue to attract the best and the brightest, if we are to continue to discover and innovate, if we are to continue to advance at an ever-increasing pace against the diseases that affect the lives of so many, our future requires an investment to fund the research necessary to create discovery.

Without it, we may very well continue to live in an era of lost opportunity. And we will never know what could have been.

David Van Andel is chairman and CEO of Van Andel Institute

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