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Arizona must do more to become a global leader in bioscience research

ASU President Michael Crow (File Photo)

During the past decade, guided by Arizona’s Bioscience Roadmap, Arizona has achieved great success in advancing its stake in the biosciences, which is one of the fastest growing sectors of the economy.

Ten years ago, leaders from the public and private sectors launched our state on an ambitious trajectory toward economic competitiveness and improved health outcomes in the conviction that Arizona could become “one of the nation’s foremost biomedical research and bioscience commercial centers, built around world-class research, clinical excellence, and a growing base of cutting edge enterprises and supporting firms and organizations.” The vision thus articulated in the report commissioned by the Flinn Foundation represented a set of long-term strategies to advance the bioscience sector that has succeeded beyond all expectations in bringing Arizona to the edge of the global playing field in this thriving sector. But what would it take now to move Arizona from its present status as a robust participant to actual global leadership?

As we observe the tenth anniversary of the Arizona Bioscience Roadmap, we acknowledge the dedication of the Roadmap Steering Committee and celebrate the commitment of the Flinn Foundation in its efforts to advance the biosciences in Arizona. We express our appreciation to citizens and policymakers and leaders from philanthropic organizations and business and industry for their support for this bold vision. And we celebrate the scientific discovery and technological innovation that is the hallmark of our three state universities, which boast such world-class bioscience centers as the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University, and the Bio5 Institute at the University of Arizona, as well as dozens of interrelated transdisciplinary programs and initiatives. These together with the cutting-edge research conducted at such leading independent biomedical research institutes as the Translational Genomics Research Institute, or TGen, in affiliation with clinical partners such as Mayo Clinic and Barrow Neurological Institute, have created new ecologies of innovation that should serve as models of collaboration nationwide.

Success in the bioscience sector in Arizona has sparked job creation and the launching of firms, the advancement of research in our state universities, and the establishment of a raft of independent research institutes and biotech incubators and accelerators. In 10 short years we have brought the knowledge-enterprise infrastructure in Arizona to the requisite level for global participation in the biosciences but not yet global leadership. While such leadership remains plainly within our grasp, its attainment requires further investment. We have already invested a great deal to position ourselves on the edge of the field, but to actually step onto that field would require scaled investments comparable to those that have been made in Texas and California. Each of these states, from completely differentiated political and economic perspectives, has made investments in science-based technological innovation on a scale unparalleled in their histories.

The Texas Emerging Technology Fund, for example, which was created by the Texas Legislature in 2005, has vastly fueled research and development and the commercialization of new technologies and techniques as well as attracting world-class talent and major investment from corporate interests. According to the annual report of the fund released by the Office the Governor, since its creation Texas companies have not only advanced important new life-saving medical treatments and next-generation information technologies but also realized significant return on investment. The state retains an interest in the companies it launches and to quote from the report, “To emphasize, the state’s investment is worth significantly more than the state paid for it.” In addition to their investment in universities and research institutes, advanced training and education, and strategic recruitment efforts, these states have established specialized niche funds for the advancement of the biosciences on top of their core infrastructure investments.

The progress of the past decade has demonstrated that Arizona is poised to become one of America’s leading centers for innovation-based economic development, with potential for global leadership in a range of industries, which besides the biosciences includes solar energy, aerospace, and defense. Arizona is already among the 10 leading states nationally in the conduct of scientific and technologically oriented economic activity. But without sufficiently robust investment, Arizona remains for the most part a factory town rather than an epicenter for discovery and innovation. Even in areas of technology where Arizona is a player, we are generally not in the vanguard of innovation.

In order to attain global leadership in the biosciences, we must build a dynamic knowledge and research infrastructure that will allow us to stay ahead of the curve in innovation. To step onto the playing field in the near term would require between 10 and 20 times the level of investment made to date. Our success will require a hybrid public-private partnership model and a policy-driven market approach. We will make only incremental progress if we are timid and set incremental goals. In order to become a hub of innovation in the biosciences, Arizonans will have to discard outmoded laissez-faire attitudes and embrace a competitive new global mindset matched with commensurately robust public engagement. It is a commitment that promises abundant economic and social returns.

— Michael Crow is president of Arizona State University.

One comment

  1. As for me, I don’t need AZ to be a global leader in Bio Research. Being strong in Optics and Architecture is sufficient.

    I’d rather have professors focused on teaching the students and have lower taxes and tuition.

    If they want to be leaders in something, don’t ask for taxpayers handouts, just work harder or move to a school which is already a global leader in what every field you are interested.

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