Genomic Bandwagon's Ride Curiously Smooth

Posted on June 09, 2002 | Type: In the News
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It has been rather mysterious and more than a little unnerving, the almost unquestioned support for throwing millions of dollars in public money toward establishing an international biotech research center in downtown Phoenix.

Maybe this is a testimony to a truly terrific idea. Even many conservatives in the state Legislature voted to finance the state's portion-nearly $30 million upfront-to land this venture even as they squeezed every last penny they could from state services to overcome an enormous budget deficit.

Perhaps it is government's version of Diamondbacks' Fever-except in this case, nobody wants to be left playing catch-up. Jump on the bandwagon early on, and you can say you were along for the ride from the start when biotechnology turns into the Valley's next great economic force.

Make no mistake, no less than Gov. Jane Hull has engaged in some eyebrow-raising hyperbole as she has ushered through the funds from the state coffers to lure the International Genomics Consortium. The state money represents about a quarter of the initial money needed to develop the Arizona Biosciences and Biomedicine Institutes that would assure landing the genomics research center. Much of the rest is coming from Phoenix and private donors.

Hull called it "perhaps the biggest event since after World War II, when Motorola came here," in trumpeting the potential for a rich new industry to blossom in the region. On another occasion to justify the state investment, she, along with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., suggested having something like this in Arizona "is where we can get out of the economic recession we've been in."

Goodness, if that's the case, why didn't the state pay for the whole things and be done with it? Surely taxpayers would comply if it meant no more recessions.

Then there was the curious press conference held late last month, in which representatives of the state's Biotech Task Force and the International Genomics Consortium joined to make this pronouncement: The center is Arizona's to lose. All you have to do is come up with another $20 million or so.

Was announcing this at a press conference another way of publicly setting us up, as if to say, "If you don't come up with the money, everyone will know you lost a sure thing."

Nobody wants to be blamed for blowing the next big thing.

Few argue the research this genomics enterprise would carry out is important. Research into cures and treatments for cancers or other diseases, along with other types of advanced biological research, generally is seen as an emerging industry sector for the 21st century. It is very plausible that this research center's presence and partnership with state universities and hospitals might attract many other firms involved in such work. For that reason, the state and Phoenix deserve credit for pursuing the effort along with private backers who have secured millions of dollars to attract the center.

But that does not mean the relentless pursuit of this enterprise must come unquestioned-even if those questions stand in the path of politically and socially desirable goals such as new jobs and health care breakthroughs.

Late last week, the Goldwater Institute, the conservative-leaning policy center in Phoenix, presented an assessment of the state's economy that cast a wary eye on things. It questioned the wisdom of the state committing millions in taxpayer funds to this effort upfront, along with ongoing funds to keep things running, when the payback is not guaranteed. It was one of the few instances of doubt raised publicly in months.

Also last week, nearly 40 professors at the University of Arizona, which would be among the partners in the effort, publicly questioned whether the state was moving too quickly to commit to the project without fully assessing potential financial pitfalls in the future should the enterprise stumble.

Would the state be left holding the bag? Will the state be faced with pumping millions more every year into the effort than we are being told? Will the philanthropic donors who are ponying up today be there down the road? What guarantee do we have that this enterprise will remain committed to this area and not be lured away in 10 years to a more attractive deal?

All are fair questions. They are reminders why cooler heads should not be afraid to give pause rather than blindly tout this or any enterprise as the silver bullet that will solve our economic problems once and for all.

Cooler heads should know it is possible, even in the face of competition from other cities, to move with measured steps and seek reasonable safeguards that protect the interests of taxpayers even as we work to lure new industries to Arizona.

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