A competitive biotechnology industry is crucial to Washington's future | My Turn
By TROY MCCLELLAND
Bothell Reporter Contributor
April 10, 2012 · Updated 1:00 PM
When it comes to pharmaceutical research, America stands where it has for years — at the top of the heap. About half the drugs approved for use in the United States were developed by companies headquartered domestically, and our country spends more on research and development than any of the six leading drug-making nations.
But that's changing. Other countries are trying mightily to overtake the United States — and if they succeed, Washington stands to lose a great deal. Fortunately, Congress has the power to ensure that America's biomedical sector maintains its competitive edge. Our leaders must use it.
Washington has long been home to innovative biotechnology firms and research centers. The state has also provided public-private partnerships that increase educational opportunities for students hoping to enter the field. The Bothell Biomedical Manufacturing Innovation Partnership Zone is an excellent example of how biomedical businesses, colleges and economic development organizations can collaborate to accelerate industry growth, providing good jobs for medical research and engineering students in our region.
In Bothell, for instance, OncoGenex Pharmaceuticals develops drugs for cancer patients. In Seattle, Omeros Corporation develops drugs to improve the outcome for surgery patients while institutions like the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, the University of Washington, and Washington State University all conduct world-class research and educate the next generation of scientists.
These institutions have yielded good jobs locally and statewide. Approximately, 5,600 people are currently employed in the biomedical industry in Snohomish County — almost double the number of these jobs reported in 2006. Average wages and benefits for Snohomish County employees in the industry top $95,000, making these highly desirable, family-wage positions. Additionally, these jobs helped support nearly 6,200 others in related business and professional services, as well as our local retailers and restaurateurs.
Statewide, the industry employs more than 32,000 people while also indirectly supporting more than 82,000 additional jobs. Average earnings in Washington were slightly lower than those in Snohomish County, but still considerably high at almost $92,000.
Washington's broader economy has benefited — the sector generated nearly $10.4 billion in economic output in 2011.
Numbers like these put Washington near the top of the class nationwide. In a state-by-state performance ranking of the biopharmaceutical sector by the Milken Institute, Washington placed in the top ten on a wide range of metrics, including research funding and "innovation output," a statistic that includes the number of clinical trials and patents won.
All of this means that Washington has been doing an excellent job of promoting scientific research that brings jobs to our state, contributes to the local and national economies, and saves lives. But it also means that Washington will be hit especially hard if the American biotechnology sector falls behind its foreign competitors.
Across the world, nations are taking steps to increase their own attractiveness to biomedical companies. The United Kingdom is home to some of the world's leading universities, while Germany has taken steps to reduce burdensome and unnecessary regulations. Japan and Singapore are leaders in science education and students in China's Shanghai province lead the world in math proficiency. China also promotes "reverse migration" of students who left to study in America. India is encouraging Western companies to invest there instead of in their native countries. Conversely, American students continue to underachieve in math and science at the same time state and local governments continue to cut P-20 education funding.
America is at a turning point. We can no longer take for granted the biotechnology industry and the tens of thousands of jobs it supports. For the first time, the United States must give these companies a good reason to stay here instead of relocating — and then make sure that those firms have the tools to compete on the international stage.
First and foremost, an efficient, effective regulator is a must. Both the biomedical industry and ordinary citizens need to know that in the years to come, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will be fully funded and using up-to-date methods to ensure drug safety and introduce new medicines in a timely manner.
In 1992, Congress passed the Prescription Drug User Fee Act, under which drug companies pay fees to help fund the FDA. The law, which must be reauthorized every five years, has been an undeniable success. It has reduced the time needed to review drugs by about half while requiring the agency to use rigorous procedures and continue to monitor drugs after they hit the market.
The latest version of the law, up for consideration this year, sets new performance goals for the FDA. Congress should not hesitate to pass it.
The biomedical industry is a critical component of the American economy — and of Washington’s in particular. Our leaders must ensure that our biomedical researchers — who already face stiff international competition — do not face unnecessary obstacles.
Troy McClelland is president and CEO of Economic Alliance Snohomish County.