Guest Column

The promise of biotech in West Michigan

October 16, 2015
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John Winthrop said we must be “as a city upon a hill — the eyes of all people are upon us.”

America has had many great scientists like Dr. Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin. Today, we have truly selfless, determined and hard-working people just like them who are giving hope to the world, and they deserve our support. Yet, America’s leadership in science and medicine is being challenged.

The Journal of the American Medical Association recently warned that increases in medical research in Asia and elsewhere are eroding the edge the United States has enjoyed for decades.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is on the front line of identifying methods of disease control through the collection of data and active surveillance. The mission of the National Institutes of Health is to understand the fundamentals of nature and behavior of living systems. Both are critical to national — and world — health.

The U.S. biomedical industry exports over $90 billion, and NIH-supported research employed more than 400,000 people across the country through its 27 centers and institutes. Last year, the Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology News blog ranked the top 10 regions in the United States for biopharma regions in the United States. Grand Rapids did not make the list, but thanks to the foundation begun by the DeVoses and Van Andels, biotech institutions and industries in West Michigan are growing. This industry helped protect us from the severe downturn other regions faced in the Great Recession, and it’s fascinating to see how much health research is intertwined locally and worldwide through public and private efforts.

Tom Cole and Roy Blunt may not be household names, but as their respective chambers’ chairs of health and human services spending, they are the U.S. “generals” in humanity’s war on disease and death, as well as studies and strategies for healthy living through CDC and NIH.

A U.S. Congressman from Oklahoma, Tom Cole is scary smart. He is a graduate of Yale, was a Fulbright Fellow at the University of London, has a photographic memory and devours books, reports, studies and articles. Pity the person who must face Cole in any debate; he eviscerates them with neither malignity nor fury, but with cool, factual command of any topic.

The conservative senator from Missouri, Roy Blunt, is one of the best legislative and political tacticians on Capitol Hill. He was elected by his peers to leadership posts in both bodies because he is a deft strategist, yet he never forgets who sent him to the nation’s capital. He was elected as a county clerk at the young age of 22, and it was likely at this stage of his political development — through direct contact with constituents — that his grasp of health and welfare of the population was nurtured.

Both have advocated protection of NIH funding despite restrictive allocations imposed by recent budget caps, and they ensure NIH is focused on its primary mission of addressing the most critical public health challenges.

Unfortunately, our edge is at risk, not due to the slow relative decline in public funding for research but the decline in private funding. Surges in private and public funding in Asia, combined with lower wages and costs to conduct research, will take its toll on U.S. research and, inevitably, production.

Will we see West Michigan on the list of the top 10 regions of the country for biotechnology and health research? Yes, but only if community leaders wish it so and act accordingly.

Grand Rapids native Steve Carey is president of Potomac Strategic Development Co. in Washington, D.C.

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