Priming the pump

February 25, 2005

OFFERING INCENTIVES to biotech researchers and the firms that capitalize on their work in Maryland makes sense, and four bills with that aim are wending through the legislature's hearing rooms. All deserve thoughtful debate and strong support.

One bill would expand state grants for research and development; another would extend a tax credit program for R&D that expired last year. A third would offer credits to individuals and companies that invest in biotech and other high-tech businesses. Costs from lost tax revenue for the three nonfunded bills over the next five years are estimated at $77.7 million total.

The fourth bill would use cigarette restitution money to pay for most-promising embryonic stem cell research, and would write into state law a ban on human cloning.

Maryland has been an easy sell to the fledgling biosciences sector. It offers a well-educated work force, great universities and nice buildings to work in, and is close to federal agencies and their grant money.

But Californians voted last election to pony up $3 billion in state funds over the next decade to lure more biotech work there, a pledge that has significantly stiffened the competition. New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Wisconsin already have created similar funds, albeit more modest. Virginia is considering one. Maryland can't afford to be left behind, not least because it is home to leaders in the field.

For example, the Johns Hopkins Health System has done much of the cutting-edge research in stem cells. It would be a shame, as well as a blow to the state's economy, to lose the momentum there. These therapies show promise for treating many degenerative diseases, including Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and juvenile and adult diabetes. With President Bush's refusal to relax the very tight federal limits on stem cell research, the action is now entirely on the state level.

Renewing the R&D tax credit would warm the chill on new prospects and startups in the state - a chill that began to spread last year when the incentive was threatened with expiration. Such companies plan by the decade, not three- or four-year increments; if they can't count on their state costs staying the same, they won't choose Maryland. And by offering a new tax credit (three years post-investment) to those who invest in companies here, the state could boost the weak link - lack of venture capital - in its startup ladder.

It is worthwhile to cultivate and retain bioscience exploration - and the jobs that will come of it. There are precious few such "clean" industries, offering jobs at all levels and the chance to work toward improving the lot of humanity.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and the General Assembly would be wise to support all these incentives. And then to consider how to help the industry take its next step: translating researchers' great discoveries into practical applications. The payoff, in both tax dollars and lives, will be enormous.

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