Massachusetts officials are holding up tens of millions of dollars in funding for infrastructure projects aimed at boosting the booming life sciences sector in the state.
The state has doled out an average of more than $50 million annually over the past seven years to support projects like a powerful next-generation microscope at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and the innovative shared laboratory space at LabCentral, in the heart of the biotech hub Kendall Square.
These types of improvements, which one scientist called “the bridges and the tunnels of the life sciences industry,” are typically paired with private investments. Many in the industry credit them with helping Massachusetts cement its edge as the nation’s top employer of workers in biotech research and development.
But this year, the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center has shown no signs of starting a funding process that ordinarily begins over the summer.
Spokespeople for Republican Governor Charlie Baker and the Life Sciences Center won’t say if it ever will. They declined to answer questions about the program’s future.
That’s sent nervous ripples through the life science community.
“That is a serious amount of money, and what the Baker administration plans to do with the money is not known,” said Harvey Lodish, an MIT scientist and long-time chair of the Life Sciences Center’s scientific advisory board. “We’re all concerned about it.”
The funding has previously been awarded by the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center’s Capital Program. Staffers there typically solicit grant applications from academia, research hospitals, and business incubators each summer, setting into motion a highly competitive, peer-reviewed selection process. The funding is generally awarded around the end of the year.
The delay in awarding this year’s grants comes at a time when administration officials, including economic development secretary Jay Ash, are talking openly about revamping the way they provide incentives to life sciences companies.
In a recent interview with STAT, Baker said those discussions represent “good business and good practice and good stewardship.”
“You won’t see dramatic changes in the way the state does business on this sort of thing,” Baker told STAT, “but let’s face it, we’re playing a very different game now than we were playing 10 years ago and we should be cognizant of that, and make adjustments accordingly.”
The interview did not address the Capital Program specifically.
Dominick Ianno, chief of staff of the Executive Office for Administration and Finance, said the administration’s spending plans for the fiscal year that begins next summer, which would fund this cycle of the Capital Program, “are still in development.” He said that Baker’s team has “relayed our continued financial commitment to the [Life Sciences Center] and its programs.”
But without a firm promise about the size of that commitment, the Life Sciences Center put the brakes on the Capital Program this year.
Funding for the Capital Program is authorized as part of a 10-year, $1 billion initiative designed to grow the life sciences sector in the state with tax incentives, grants, and loans. Then-Governor Deval Patrick, a Democrat, announced the initiative in 2007 at a global biotech industry conference that draws thousands of executives, scientists, and investors from around the world.
Baker has said he’s committed to the biotech industry. But some executives were surprised when he didn’t attend or send a high-profile surrogate to this year’s industry conference in Philadelphia in June. (The governor told STAT he didn’t go because he had other pressing problems to deal with. He said voters expect him to focus on issues at home).
His administration also floated the idea of consolidating the Life Sciences Center with the state’s other economic development programs. That idea was dropped after backlash from biotech executives, but Baker’s administration and the state legislature each trimmed some of the center’s funding.
“All of that was disconcerting,” said Lydia Villa-Komaroff, a retired biotech executive who sits on the Life Sciences Center’s board of directors.
A member of the center’s scientific advisory board, biotech executive JC Gutiérrez-Ramos, said he was dismayed by what he characterized as a significant “deceleration” in the Life Sciences Center’s activity in the Baker administration’s first year.
Travis McCready, who took over as the Life Sciences Center’s chief executive last month, said in a recent interview that the Baker administration has already proved to be a “great partner” in the center’s work. And he said he hasn’t sensed much anxiety among industry executives about Baker’s commitment to life sciences.
Baker does have some support for his plans to re-evaluate the way the state supports life sciences. Doug Cole, an investor at the venture capital firm Flagship Ventures, said he thinks the sector has largely outgrown the need for support from the state.
“It’s not obvious to me at this point,” Cole said, “that government and taxpayer funds are a major factor in the success of our industry, or would be going forward.”
But Barry Bluestone, director of Northeastern University’s Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy and the lead author of a 2013 report studying the impact of the Life Sciences Center, said it would be “shortsighted” to pull the plug on the Capital Program.
For his part, MIT’s Lodish compared the Capital Program to the infrastructure improvements required to keep a public transportation system humming: “Not flashy,” he said, but essential. While the life sciences community might not notice the program’s absence next year, Lodish predicted that entrepreneurs and executives would feel the hit in four or five years, when the lack of upgrades became glaring.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly characterized decisions on funding the Life Sciences Center. Appropriations are set by both the governor and the legislature.