With the U.S. Senate on the way to approving $20 million for the Christopher Columbus Center for Marine Research and Exploration, can the House be far behind? The answer had better be "yes" if this country hopes to compete with Japan and others for leadership in the promising 21st century field of marine biotechnology.
Thanks to the clout of Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, her appropriations subcommittee added $20 million for the Columbus Center and then approved a spending bill for the nation's space program and other independent federal agencies. the full Senate goes along as expected, the fight will move to a conference committee with the House. Although the House hasn't included any Columbus Center money in its appropriations bill, Rep. Steny Hoyer -- Maryland's key player -- still is in a strong position to sway House conferees.
Washington is being asked to pay for a 165,000 square-foot laboratory that could generate startling marine discoveries and practical, product-oriented breakthroughs. Officials hope to create a "mini-university" at the 11.5-acre inner harbor facility, led by the University of Maryland's Rita Colwell, a marine biotechnologist of international repute.
Other countries lead the United State in biotechnology research. The Japanese, seeking big economic payoffs, have set aside $600 million to duplicate the marine biotechnology model Dr. Colwell wants to use. Meanwhile, Dr. Colwell is having trouble persuading Washington to come up with even 10 percent of that total.
So far, Congress has put $11.5 million into the Columbus Center. Time is running short, though. Groundbreaking is scheduled for October 1992 as part of the celebration commemorating the 500th anniversary of Columbus' discovery of the New World. If Congress appropriates $20 million this year, Washington will have contributed over half of the $60 million needed for the laboratory -- enough to keep the project on schedule.
Dr. Colwell's biotechnology center could develop new drugs, increase the nation's food supply, preserve threatened species and help cut pollution of the seas through its studies. The marine center, to be built on Piers 5 and 6, is a key component in the city's new thrust to make the "life sciences" central to the region's economic development. It could quickly become a focal point for scientists and for companies eager to market products that flow from these high-tech marine studies.
Maryland's delegation in Congress must see that the Columbus Center gets the $20 million approved by Ms. Mikulski's subcommittee. The Chesapeake Bay is the perfect spot for a world-class marine science institute. This is one scientific field in which the United States cannot afford to cede economic primacy to any other country.