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Innovation Deficit Threatens America’s Health and Prosperity | Commentary

In the center of the country there’s a quiet revolution taking place that holds great promise for our nation, though only if we address the growing innovation deficit facing America.

Kansas’ economy has been traditionally based on agriculture, energy and aerospace. But we’re quickly becoming a national destination for cutting-edge biomedical research at our universities and businesses, with 13 thousand Kansans working in the life sciences today. Their work may soon unlock cures for diseases ranging from cancer to Alzheimer’s, thanks to federal research funding and a deliberate strategy of investing in Kansas’ bioscience industry.

In a move that’s now a model for partnerships around the country, the Johnson County Education and Research Triangle was created by voters in suburban Kansas City. This partnership between the citizens of Johnson County, the University of Kansas and Kansas State University has expanded teaching in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields and is helping bring clinical trials to patients. In addition to support from the triangle and from private philanthropists, funding from the Kansas Bioscience Authority was vital to the KU Cancer Center earning National Cancer Institute designation.

These efforts have benefitted from support in Washington. Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., has championed investments to make Kansas a national hub for biotech business and innovation, and Rep. Kevin Yoder, R-Kan., says investments in scientific research should be a bipartisan priority.

Investments in bioscience research receive this support because they’re already paying dividends. Researchers at KU identified a gene associated with several breast cancers, which could allow doctors to better assess, treat and prevent the disease. A KU scientist discovered the building blocks for a potential new treatment for sickle cell disease, delivering hope to 100 thousand Americans suffering from this genetic blood disorder. And our scientists are studying a range of treatments for Alzheimer’s disease, which is crucial because Kansas has one of the highest rates of Alzheimer’s in the country.

We have been able to achieve these and other breakthroughs thanks to support from the National Institutes of Health. NIH is our country’s medical research agency, and the largest funder of medical research in the world. In fiscal 2014, researchers brought nearly $100 million in NIH funding to Kansas.

But the NIH budget has eroded by nearly 25 percent since 2003, when adjusted for inflation, meaning thousands of promising research ideas now can’t be pursued. That has major implications for patients and their families nationwide.

America’s growing innovation deficit also hampers our national and state economies, because university bioscience research creates news jobs and new companies. The KU researchers who worked with NIH to develop safer ways to deliver powerful anti-cancer drugs were so successful that they created their own private company, CyDex, one of 28 active companies created from KU research.

We encourage our professors to be entrepreneurs by seeking out opportunities to collaborate with existing businesses or by starting their own. A dozen companies have moved to Lawrence in recent years to partner with KU, and we have relationships with hundreds more, including life science heavyweights such as Bayer HealthCare and Eli Lilly.

Just as the benefits of research into human and animal health are evident here in Kansas, they’re also clear to leaders around the world. Other nations see the health and economic benefits of bioscience research and are ramping up their national commitment to this work, with China on track to outspend the United States in research and development by 2020. Our nation’s leadership position is at stake, as is our ability to treat and cure patients in Kansas and around the country.

Medical research has benefitted each and every one of us. Both parties agree that it is vital to our country’s future, but both parties now need to act. Now is the time for Congress to restore NIH’s budget and restore our nation’s investment in the life-changing promise of medical research.

Bernadette Gray-Little is chancellor of the University of Kansas.

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