U of M pushes for biomedical research moneyby Art Hughes, Minnesota Public Radio
The University of Minnesota is going to the Legislature with a plan to dedicate $330 million of state bonding money over the next 10 years for academic biomedical research. University President Robert Bruininks publicly unveiled the plan in his State of the University address Thursday.
St. Paul, Minn. — University officials say they need what they're calling the Minnesota Biomedical Research Facilities Authority, to be able to keep the state competitive in the fast-growing biosciences market.
In his address, Bruininks also touted progress in the effort to build the university into one of the top research institutions in the world -- an ambitious goal he unveiled a year ago.
Delivering his speech from the University of Minnesota campus in Morris, President Robert Bruininks said the state risks being outpaced by others regarding biomedical industry infrastructure.
"Twenty other states, including California, New Jersey, and Wisconsin, are making enormous research investments. 'Reaching,' to use Senior Vice President Frank Cerra's words, 'for the brass ring of biomedical science,'" said Bruininks. "In order to be competitive, the university must add approximately five state-of-the-art buildings, and the researchers to fill them, over the next 10 years."
Bruininks says the university is already a recognized leader in research and is positioned well to take the effort to the next step.
"Our scholars successfully competed for and secured $561 million in sponsored research this past year, 98 percent of all such funds awarded to researchers in Minnesota's colleges and universities," Bruininks pointed out. "We are fifth in royalties nationally, and New Scientist magazine named us fourth among all U.S. universities for our success in commercializing intellectual property from research."
But the university also continues to struggle relative to its peers in receiving grants from the National Institutes of Health, and the agency's budget is expected to thin in the near future.
University officials say waiting on the cumbersome legislative bonding process will mean Minnesota will miss out on an opportunity to position itself as a world leader in the biomedical industry.
Frank Cerra, the head of the university's Academic Health Center, says the state needs to make a commitment now -- or watch the potential prize of jobs, expertise and prestige go elsewhere.
"We're in a race nationally to not become a fly-by state for biomedical technology," said Cerra. "We are in the middle of the challenge with Hopkins, Yale, Harvard and so forth on the East Coast, and California and Seattle on the West Coast. They're making major investments."
Cerra compares Minnesota with other states such as California, which has put some $2 billion worth of health sciences construction in the University of California-San Francisco, and Wisconsin, which set out $750 million for an academic bioscience building.
Cerra compares the current situation to Minnesota's relative lack of funding for computer industry development, when that technology was beginning to catch fire.
"We did not make the investment in the late '80s in what we would now call chip technology, so the center for that universe is in California. We can be a center for biomedical sciences, but we need the investment now," said Cerra.
Cerra says sophisticated lab space is crucial to recruiting talented faculty. He points to the recent hiring of pharmaceutical researcher Gunda Georg as an example of that. The U of M lured the renowned scientist away from the University of Kansas. She's expected to bring 20 additional research staff with her.
But, Cerra says, that single hire used up the remaining lab facilities that can accommodate such high-level study at the university.
Richard Pfutzenreuter, the U's chief financial officer, says the big investments needed for specialized and expensive construction don't fit well with the competitive, every-other-year bonding cycle at the Legislature.
"If we have a need, for example, to build five buildings and it ends up taking two budget cycles or four years, it's going to be 20 years before Minnesota gets this job done," Pfutzenreuter said.
Pfutzenreuter points to the university's current request this session for $40 million to help build a new biomedical research building on campus. Gov. Pawlenty's bonding proposal offers only $4 million for the project.
What Pfutzenreuter and other officials propose is an appointed panel to oversee long-term facility planning. The university wants the panel to oversee $330 million in borrowing, of which 90 percent would be paid back by the state.
The first years of the project would mean a little more than $4 million of state tax money set aside. Ultimately the state would be responsible for more than $26 million a year until the debt is paid.
"It will be a difficult sell, we know that," said Pfutzenreuter. "But we think it's important that the state understand that they have to take a big bite here in this area, and give us the ability to plan into the future and get this thing done."
- All Things Considered, 03/02/2006, 5:23 p.m.