NEW HAVEN — Here is something you don’t hear very often: praise for Connecticut and the large return that public investment in one sector of the economy means for Greater New Haven and the state.
U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., called together representatives of several dozen biotech companies and researchers to bring back stories to Washington on the importance of growing or at least maintaining National Institutes of Health grants.
Murphy said the return the state has generated in terms of research growth and discoveries with a relatively small investment is remarkable.
He said he was in San Francisco recently when it was getting ready for a referendum on its next phase of stem cell funding.
The senator said those officials were praising Connecticut for its rate of return on investment, which “is way higher then California’s rate of return on a dollar-for-dollar basis.”
“I need to tell that story more broadly, we all need to tell that story more broadly. … If you want to actually play in a state that is turning around discoveries in a cost efficient way for the investment, this is actually the state you want to be in, not California,” Murphy said.
Jon Soderstrom, director of Cooperative Research at Yale University, said too many people focus on negative stories about companies leaving Connecticut.
He said state and federal investment has had a “tremendous positive impact on the economy,” because institutions can leverage dollars. “But everyone wants to focus on the negative,” Soderstrom said.
State Rep. Lonnie Reed, D-Branford, said at the state legislature there is bipartisan commitment to scientific research.
Murphy said this “state has suffered for the past 10 years from a massive inferior complex. Our biggest problem is of our own making in that we don’t tell the story of the great things that are happening here.”
“For all the time we wring our hands when some bigger companies decide that they want to go other places, we spend no time on all the companies that are here and growing,” he said.
Craig Crews, executive director of YCMD, said he needs Murphy to say those things to convince companies to come here because management only hears negatives.
But when they get here they find it is “incredible. This place is a gold mine,” Crews said.
The senator said while there is a political consensus around biotech, “there is not a political consensus in Hartford around cheerleading the state. There are other states in which parties fight each other, but they both boost their state.”
While the positives of federal investment were acknowledged, shortcomings were also discussed.
Crews said he needs funding for staff scientists who can carry forward the institutional memory of his labs, which turn over every five years when graduate students leave. He has one staffer in that position, a job he has held for 17 years.
Another researcher said there should be cooperation between immigration and the NIH on the importance of keeping foreign graduate students here after they complete their studies. He said they want to stay and biotech companies want them to stay.
Murphy said one of the things he does when he visits cities is to take the bus around town and talk to riders.
Inevitably in New Haven, some of them are graduate students who are “skilled up” and ready to contribute here, but they can’t get permission from immigration officials.
David Voccola, co-founder of Prometheus Research, said unfortunately grants tend to go to “sexy” research, but to advance an investigation you need large data sets to support it.
When there is a budget squeeze, Voccola said data management often is the area that is not supported. He said the statisticians will stay, but they are spending time organizing data, rather than finding innovative medical solutions.
He said data has to be organized in a way that it drives the next investigation, so scientists are not starting from scratch. Voccola said the U.S. is years behind in this field that is necessary so data can be reviewed.
Christy Kovel, director of public policy at the Alzheimer’s Association, said a lot of research is being done in New Haven on lifestyle management to prevent the disease as there continues to be only five drugs available with big pharmaceutical companies not making advances.
“As the demographics keep shifting more money needs to be invested in NIH research because this is the only way we are going to prevent a disease that people live with for an average of two to 20 years,” she said.