Up and running


Published: Wednesday, January 14, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 13, 2004 at 9:04 p.m.
The governor should be placing the state's money on UF instead of gambling on the Scripps Research Institute.
Gov. Jeb Bush rolled the dice when he persuaded the Legislature to spend more than $300 million to lure the prestigious Scripps Research Institute to Palm Beach County. The gamble is that Scripps' presence will eventually help make Florida a major player in biotechnology - and that thousands of well-paying jobs will be created as a result.
The downside is that it will be years before it's known if the gamble has paid off. As Don Szaro, director of health sciences industry for Ernst & Young, told Florida Trend recently: "You're talking about a long, long cycle. It takes eight to 10 years to make a discovery to the marketplace and a total investment of some $800 million."
Scripps Florida is, at present, just a gleam in some architect's eye. And even when it has facilities up and running, it will be somewhat handicapped by the absence of a nationally reputable, research-oriented health care institution - of the caliber of UF's Shands Hospital - in the immediate vicinity.
Which brings us to the more important point: UF and Shands are already up and running. And in the near future, its vast research and development enterprise holds out the promise of a much faster and more lucrative "return on investment" than does Scripps.
In that regard, Gov. Jeb Bush's appearance at UF's McKnight Brian Institute to announce his plans to push for more money for Florida's "Centers of Excellence" was encouraging - if decidedly underwhelming.
Bush wants the Legislature to allocate $20 million for Centers of Excellence, where ideas can be moved out of the laboratory and into the marketplace. UF has one of three such centers, the other two being at Central Florida and Florida International universities. Presumably, UF will be able to compete for a substantial portion of that $20 million - assuming that still other state universities do not also get into the hunt by creating centers of their own.
Of course, when measured against $310 million for Scripps, $20 million isn't much. It's literally a drop in the bucket to an institution like UF, which attracted more than $437 million in research funding in 2001-02 alone.
It seems especially inadequate when one considers that Gov. Bush and the Legislature have been hacking away at university budgets for the past several years - obliging UF and its sister institutions to enroll more and more students for less and less per-student funding. It is folly to presume that subjecting the universities to the fiscal version of a "death by a thousand cuts" will not eventually undermine their ability to support and conduct world-class, cutting-edge research.
It's not that we want to sound ungrateful, but putting the university system on a starvation budget and then offering up a $20 million bauble to help stimulate research and development strikes us as classic penny wise, pound foolish policy. Ten times $20 million to stimulate research and development in the state universities would still be a modest investment in Florida's future.
In his interview with Florida Trend, Szaro said: "Our research into other markets that have succeeded - such as Boston, San Francisco and the Research Triangle in North Carolina - shows you've got to have the clinician base, the scientific base, the entrepreneurial spirit and then money in the middle of that triangle funding it all."
Scripps may have all of those essential elements - one day. UF has almost all of them right now.
It baffles us that our governor is willing to gamble hundreds of millions of dollars on the prospect that Scripps will pay off - in a decade or two - while offering a pittance to a nationally renowned, state-owned research enterprise that is already paying substantial dividends and doing much of the pioneering work that will truly make Florida a major biotech state.
Unlike Scripps, UF's research enterprise is already up and running. So why won't a high-roller like Gov. Bush place his bet on a sure thing?

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