By Tom Still

MADISON – The response has been less than overwhelming to Gov. Jim Doyle’s proposal to invest nearly $750 million in public and private money in Wisconsin’s biotechnology future. Budget-conscious members of the Legislature have choked on the price tag, opponents on stem cell research have once again protested, and Milwaukee politicians have asked if they’re being shortchanged in favor of Madison.

Doyle should address all legitimate gripes about the specifics of his plan, but he shouldn’t back down a nanometer on the core idea behind it: Wisconsin has a chance to be a national leader in biotechnology, including stem cell research, and that opportunity won’t wait forever while we wring our hands.

The decision by California voters to spend $3 billion over 10 years on human embryonic stem cell research may have forever altered the dynamics of research funding, at least in that emerging field. California voters have decided the potential for public good (and financial gain) from stem cell research is so great that they’re willing to spend their own money – and bypass the restrictions that come with federal aid.

It’s a gamble that only risk-addicted Californians can easily take, and it illustrates the competitive nature of such research.

With $3 billion to build labs and hire top-flight researchers, California can essentially spend its way into world leadership. Even though human embryonic stem cell research was pioneered at the UW-Madison, California’s new Institutes for Regenerative Medicine could seize the advantage within a matter of years.

For legislators who recall what it meant to the Wisconsin economy to be overtaken by California in dairy production, the comparison ought to be painful.

To be sure, Wisconsin won’t lie down and play dead. The Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, which is the private patent and licensing arm of the UW-Madison, holds patents on the world’s premier stem cell lines. In order for California researchers to conduct world-class work, they’ll need agreements to use those lines. There are only a few states that can hope to compete with the go-go Californians, and Wisconsin is among them.

Wisconsin cannot compete, however, if state lawmakers fail to see the value of the investment, if stem cell opponents are allowed to block ethically conducted research, and if the another tiresome “Madison versus Milwaukee” squabble takes our eye of the reality of much larger competitors.

Doyle’s proposal includes:

 $375 million to build an interdisciplinary research center on the UW-Madison campus. The center would be called the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery and would encompass research on stem cells, biochemistry, nanotechnology and computer engineering.
 $134 million for an Interdisciplinary Research Complex near the University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics dedicated to innovation and rapid transfer of medical science discoveries into clinical applications;
 $132 million for a research facility at the Medical College of Wisconsin and Children’s Hospital that will focus on infectious disease control, cardiovascular illnesses, and bioengineering;
 $1.5 million annually to support a new Alzheimer’s research initiative; and
 Investments of $105 million over the next five years in research, education, and public health efforts at the UW Medical School and the Medical College of Wisconsin to make progress in areas such as regenerative medicine, stem cell research, molecular medicine, neuroscience, and cancer research.

Half of the money would be private, but the public match must come first. The total investment would be spread over a number of years and would create 27,000 jobs, according to job multiplier estimates reported earlier this by the Wisconsin Technology Council. The U.S. Commerce Department estimates that 36 jobs are created for every $1 million in spending related to academic research.

While a part of the proposal is tied to stem cell research, the bulk of the plan is built around other scientific disciplines and how they work together. Such interdisciplinary research has been a Wisconsin strength for decades – and the investment made over time has repeatedly paid for itself. This investment would be no different.

Wisconsin policymakers can argue among themselves while California leaps ahead, or they can embrace Doyle’s vision and keep the state competitive. The choice should be obvious: Investing wisely now will secure a brighter future for Wisconsin.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.