Oregon bioscience spending - worthy investment, or misguided pursuit for phony prestige?
by: Courtesy of Perkins and Will, A rendering shows the life sciences building proposed for Portland’s South Waterfront. Lobbyists are asking the Legislature for help in building the $100 million complex.

The Portland Tribune story 'Bioscience bust?' (May 14) rests its arguments on an oft-repeated misunderstanding that the public investment in Oregon Health and Science University's bioscience research known as the Oregon Opportunity was aimed only at creating new non-OHSU jobs.

In fact, the Oregon Opportunity had broader goals, which its critics often fail to mention. Many have already been accomplished; some have been greatly exceeded; and some will take more time to complete.

The Oregon Opportunity was a $200 million state bond measure approved by the Legislature in 2001. OHSU pledged to more than match this public investment with private fundraising and did just that, with the OHSU Foundation raising $378 million. More than 78,000 individual donors demonstrated with their own pocketbooks their commitment to advancing health knowledge and discovery.

Oregonians' investment in OHSU set the scene for other transformational gifts and grants - a $40 million anonymous gift to expand medical education; $100 million from Phil and Penny Knight to advance cancer research and care; and $55 million from the National Institutes of Health to expand our focus on translational research. For Oregonians, the Oregon Opportunity improved access to the best health treatments, created a range of family-wage jobs and underscored the importance of science, education and discovery.

One part of the Oregon Opportunity helped to update and expand OHSU lab space so the university could attract and retain top scientists and grants. OHSU's Biomedical Research Building on Marquam Hill was finished on time and on budget in 2006. Its cutting-edge laboratories and research equipment include some of the most powerful magnetic resonance imaging instruments in the world. Today, researchers in the Biomedical Research Building are learning the secrets of cell signaling, the genetic and molecular causes of diseases and unlocking the keys to better treating childhood illnesses and eye, heart, cancer, neurological and other diseases.

A bigger goal was to build OHSU into a leading research university. Since 2002, OHSU has recruited more than 80 principal investigators and 258 research team members, many from top U.S. universities.

The effort succeeded. Grants awarded to OHSU increased dramatically, and OHSU's medical school moved into the top 20 medical schools nationally in NIH funding.

OHSU's accomplishments often are better known nationally than locally. Time Magazine, for example, ranked OHSU researcher Shoukhrat Mitalipov's first in cloning primate stem cells as tied for the most significant scientific breakthrough in 2007.

For those who don't live in the academic world, it is easy to overlook the economic benefits of OHSU's bioscience research. Bringing in a new OHSU grant has a similar effect on the local economy as when a headquarters company wins a federal contract - new money comes into the state and is used to pay salaries and overhead, and purchase supplies and services, much of it from local sources. Using a standard multiplier, the $361 million growth in grants since the Oregon Opportunity investment has created more than $900 million of new Oregon economic activity.

In addition, 33 spinoff companies have been created as the result of OHSU research since 2002. The work force associated with these companies is still small, but it likely will grow in the future.

Venture capital is a stumbling block for bioscience and other Oregon industries. But it's important to remember that Oregon doesn't need to become one of the top national centers for bioscience employment to capture significant economic benefits from the family-wage jobs created at OHSU and in the community as OHSU succeeds in attracting research grants.

There is one other benefit from the Oregon Opportunity, and in many ways it is the most important. Many investigators are also clinical leaders, providing cutting-edge care to patients and instruction to students and professionals in cancer, neuroscience, cardiology, pediatrics and other specialties. For the Oregonian whose heart attack is diagnosed swiftly by an Oregon Opportunity recruit, the public investment is measured in a saved and improved life, rather than a new job.

The Oregon Opportunity was a remarkable public investment in brain power and the search for a healthy future. Oregon will benefit from this investment for years to come.

Dan Dorsa is vice president for research at Oregon Health and Science University. He lives in Southwest Portland.

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