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Our Opinion • Bioscience center needs scrutiny

As the Oregon Legislature considers spending another $100 million to pursue the dream of making Portland a hub for the bioscience industry, it must think more like an investor and less like a benefactor.

Legislators have been asked by an impressive consortium of state universities to help fund the creation of a proposed Life Sciences Collaborative Complex that supporters say will foster the research power needed to draw high-paying biotech companies and employment to Oregon. If that justification sounds familiar, you are right. Bioscience has been touted as a new economic engine for Oregon for much of the past decade. However, this is an engine that has coughed or sputtered, but never roared as expected.

As an article in last Thursday's Portland Tribune reported, Oregon's investment in bioscience, which received much attention and $200 million in similar state support in 2002, hasn't produced overwhelming results. Meanwhile, bioscience community leaders and their critics hotly dispute varying statistics that purport to show how Oregon is faring in attracting bioscience firms and jobs.

We cannot hope to resolve such arguments here. But we believe it's safe to say that Oregon has had modest success in growing the biotech industry - and better-than-modest results in attracting federal grants. But absolutely no one can dispute that Portland and Oregon lag far behind other leading biotech areas such as Boston, Austin, San Diego and Seattle.

Universities asking for more

The question of whether Portland ever can play in the biotech big leagues is immediately pertinent, as the Legislature must decide during extremely challenging economic times whether to authorize $100 million in bonds to help finance the life sciences complex, to be built in South Waterfront.

The 300,000-square-foot facility is proposed by the Oregon University System in partnership with Oregon Health and Science University. But it also would support educational programs for Oregon State University, Portland State University, the University of Oregon and the Oregon Institute of Technology.

We applaud the cooperation of these universities, especially at a time when this state has limited resources to invest in higher education. We also acknowledge the proposal would be helped by donations and grants to fully fund the $250 million construction cost.

We can imagine many potential benefits from this investment. But legislators also must measurably evaluate this proposal against all other demands for public money. By the time these bonds are paid off with interest, taxpayers will have spent far more than the state's initial $100 million investment.

Outcomes must be measurable

In its legislative proposal, the Oregon University System does a good job of spelling out what the facility would cost and how its space would be used. What's missing, however, is a thorough business analysis detailing the state's return on its investment.

To determine whether to provide support, legislators must demand that the university partners establish ongoing and diverse benchmarks by which to judge this project. How many students would be educated and in what disciplines? How many research dollars would be attracted and over what time? How many new jobs would be created and sustained? And how many spinoff companies would locate in Oregon?

There's no doubt that this proposed facility would enhance educational opportunities, but the same could be said for any $100 million investment at any level of education.

We think that the Legislature cannot allocate money simply because someone asks for help with a promise of a brighter economic future. Instead, lawmakers must require a business plan that can be tracked, evaluated and reasonably achieved over time.