Life sciences, education and the economy

The Governor had sought general legislation of this type and the Committee on Economic Development had spent many months crafting a specific and complex bill supporting the Governor’s objectives.

The Committee did some very careful work and the bill is responsive to concerns that all of us share — how to keep the Masschusetts economy vibrant with good jobs in the face of automation and international competition, and how to support the advancement of the basic life sciences as the federal government pours our national treasure elsewhere.  I voted for the bill.

But I think that the bill raises two deep strategic questions:

The first is about the role of government in supporting private development.  The major components of the bill are as follows:

  • A little under $400 million for life sciences related public sector infrastructure.  Over half of that infrastructure is in the form of buildings and equipment in the University of Massachusetts.  We have a Nobel Prize winning life sciences researcher at U.Mass. and much of this investment will build capacity around his leadership.  Additionally the bill will support site improvements for industrial sites, like highway and sewer.  There are a couple of major earmarks, but most of the site money will be allocated over the next ten years by the executive branch.
  • Roughly $200 million in education and research investments  supporting life sciences, including work force training grants, equipment  for vocational and technical schools, a graduate and post-doctoral  fellowship program for life sciences scholars, and support for a K12  teaching initiative for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
    A little under $100 million for two new investment funds to support  life sciences companies — one will make small startup grants, under
    $250,000, and the other will make bridge loans to facilitate growth for   companies that are a little further along.  Both funds are set up as  revolving — the grants will be made in return for small equity investments  that may pay off over time.
  • $250 million in tax credits for life sciences companies that make a  substantial commitment to growing jobs in Massachusetts.

All of the grant programs, and even the tax credit program, are set up under a new structure of oversight that it is designed to bring very qualified people to make the awards.  The specific criteria for grants and credits are very stringent and designed to assure a return to the public on the investments.

It is hard enough for government to regulate the spending of money for familiar purposes like education, health care and public safety.  And I generally believe that government should stick to what it knows well and let the private sector do what it does best.

But that those involved in drafting the bill seem to recognize and share these concerns about the scope of governmental competence.  The oversight
structures created within the bill are as good as they can be.  Given the oversight, and given the vacuum being created by the waning of federal leadership, and given the fact that many other states and countries are working very hard to attract life sciences businesses which are presently a valuable part of our economy, I swallowed my concerns.

The other major question that the bill raises is one of expectations.  The life sciences are a very finite and elite sector, currently only a tiny fraction of our labor force.   It seems unrealistic to expect that the life sciences or other emerging technology industries will ever employ a broad segment of our work force.  All of these industries are very integrated
globally, and to the extent fabrication jobs are created for those beyond the scientific elite, they will go to the cheapest place they can be done, which is unlikely to be Massachusetts.

Certainly, the spinoff activity that the labs generate does help many in the labor force, but this is hard to quantify.

Most of our effort in education improvement today is designed to bring students to a level of basic proficiency.  Basic high school proficiency — or even proficiency plus some college — does not position our students to enter life sciences development roles.   We need to look at how to identify and inspire the kids that might succeed in those roles.

And we need to consider strategies that will create more good permanent jobs for people without the most advanced and specialized skills.  Green jobs — low and medium skill jobs involved in energy conservation and adaptation to climate change — are one promising direction, but we need to do much more if we are to restore the economic security that so many families feel that they have lost.

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.