Monday, December 17, 2007

The Red Phone Line Between Morrill Hall

And the Strib Editorial Office Still Works

The future of an important Minnesota industry is at stake.
Last update: December 16, 2007 - 4:31 PM

Governors and legislators are often faulted for not seeing, or thinking, past the next election. Next session, the University of Minnesota will give this state's political leaders a great opportunity to prove that accusation wrong.

Bless the U’s Administration, always giving the state’s politicians the opportunity to disprove the accusation that they do not think past the next election.

Back for a third time [!] will be a proposal to give the university preliminary approval and create a greased-skids [!] bonding process for the construction of four major bioscience research buildings, to be built in a cluster near the new Gophers football stadium over the next decade. The total price tag: $233 million, over eight to 10 years.

Hmm… As I recall that is less than the price of the new stadium? Apparently that had a higher priority than this wonderful opportunity to prevent Medical Alley from becoming a back alley? Certainly paying working stiffs a living wage wasn’t a priority either last year, but I digress.

In that proposal lies Minnesota's best hope to preserve and expand on the biosciences industry that emerged in the late 20th century as an economic powerhouse for this state. The industry's future is highly dependent on a steady output of discovery by University of Minnesota researchers. Without that intellectual fuel, Minnesota's medical alley could become a back alley; with it, Minnesota can be a winner in the 21st century's global economic competition.

Now is this biosciences we are funding, or the design of medical devices, or… Seems like a close examination is in order of what it is, exactly, that we are trying to do.

How many Bakken chairs of biomedical engineering have we had? Why is it that we did so poorly in extracting money from the Whitaker Foundation before it spent itself out of business?

As far as I can tell, we don’t really have much of a biosciences industry in the Twin Cities. 3M Pharmaceuticals has just folded. The U’s stem cell patent was sold to Athersys in Cleveland.

Why create a separate bond authorization process to fund the buildings that would house biosciences research? For two good reasons:

Hiring the dozens of research superstars the university hopes to attract with new facilities takes more time than recruiting other faculty -- often three to five years. Being able to say now that the state is committed to building a new laboratory in 2012 or 2014 is an important recruiting tool.

And where is the money going to come from to pay for hiring these dozens of superstars? Please see an earlier discussion of this shell game: “If You Build It, Grants Will Come.”

And what evidence is there that superstars (whatever that means) are lined up to come to Minnesota? We can’t even keep our own stars, let alone superstars. Let's see: Jonathan Ravdin, Chip Bohlen, Nigel Key, Mike Ward, Ben Liu, Jim Chelikowsky, Ed Prescott, Karin Musier-Forsythe, Ed Egelman, Paul Barbara, David Sherman, just off the top of my head. All stars or superstars; all gone.

If the legislature bites on this honeycrisp, they had better be prepared to follow up with additional big bucks. Otherwise they can expect to hear: “You built us the buildings, so it is only fair that you give us the money to hire people to put in those buildings. Oh, and by the way, we are also going to need more money for expensive equipment to go in the buildings."

Some years ago the University of Wisconsin deliberately contracted in size. They appear to be about 25% smaller than we are. And yet they bring in a remarkable amount of external research funding and do a demonstrably better job for their undergraduates. Maybe it is time for Minnesota to take a good look at this possibility?

In the next ten years or so we are going to have a lot of retirements. The college age population in the state will also be shrinking. To use adminspeak, why don't we have a conversation about this? Of course administrators would rather not preside over shrinkage. There is more glory in expansion.

Maybe their names can some day go on a new building? Possible snappy names include: The Frank Cerra Hall for Holistic Biosciences, The Bob Bruininks Biosciences Tower II, The Powell-Sullivan Interdisciplinary Biosciences Building, The Paller-Moldau-Furcht Center for Virtual Reality in Business and Medicine. The mind reels. Of course well-heeled donors would have first dibs on naming rights. A silent auction could be held.

It's difficult for a large commitment of this sort to be accommodated in the Legislature's typical every-other-year bonding exercise. That process is prone to partisan hitches (witness 2004 and 2007, in which no bonding bill passed) and parochial calculations. Legislators generally aim to spread bonding money far and wide to maximize its political impact, and tend to resent and resist large requests.

Which means that a good case has to be made for additional money. I’d suggest that a good case can be made for the University – one based on getting us into the top half of the BigTen. I think that citizens of the state would be sympathetic to that aspiration.

The university's original proposal departed from the usual bonding process by creating a separate governing panel empowered to issue bonds from a large, pre-authorized pool. That idea was embraced by the Senate, resisted in the House and tepidly received in the governor's office.

A variation on that idea has been floated in recent weeks. Rather than creating a separate panel to issue bonds as needed for each building, it would allow the Legislature itself to play that role. A simple majority vote would be required. The initial bond authorization, still sought in 2008, requires a two-thirds vote.

Fortunately to be positive the first vote will require a two-thirds majority. I hope the state legislature thinks long and hard about the implications.

That change ought to appeal to the senior House members who were wary of giving a new governing entity too much power. It also ought to give Gov. Tim Pawlenty reason to back the university's effort with more vigor and visibility. There likely will be no better opportunity next session for today's political leaders to set the table for tomorrow's Minnesota.

Ah, thank you for your editorial opinion. Might there be better opportunities?

As I understand it there is the little matter of a bridge to be built and many more to be fixed. As I understand it there is a light-rail proposal that will involve quite a bit of money, whether it involves a tunnel through the U, at grade, or circumvention.

And there is a little matter of a coal-fired steam plant that the University owns and operates. Is a socially responsible world class research organization going to continue operating a coal-fired plant? Another naming opportunity might present itself. How about the Bob Bruininks Pollution Prevention Pays Power Plant? Solutions to all of these community problems are high buck and involve the University directly or indirectly. What are the thoughts of the editorial board over at the Strib on these possibly better opportunities to spend money?

Ciao, Bonzo

No comments: