Napolitano exit worries biotech, climate-change, education boosters

December 4, 2008

By hammersmith

[Source: The Arizona Republic] – Gov. Janet Napolitano’s selection for a job in Washington, D.C., may be secure, but her vision of a research-based economy in Arizona is no sure thing.

Napolitano has been a key figure in the state’s push to foster the biosciences since she became governor in 2003. She played a critical role in securing funding for the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) and establishing Science Foundation Arizona.

But if she takes over the reins of the Homeland Security Department in Barack Obama’s administration, she will leave Arizona as the state faces a $1.2 billion budget shortfall this year and the Legislature is poised to make sharp cuts.

Fiscal conservatives may see biotechnology programs as a ripe target, which is making many bioscience and research boosters nervous. They insist that cutting research programs now would be a mistake.

“If this economic downturn does anything, it shows we must diversify our economy,” said John Murphy, president and chief executive officer of the Flinn Foundation in Phoenix. “The investments that have been made should be sustained.”

The state’s push to grow a bioscience economy has been ambitious.

Arizona and Phoenix combined have committed more than $1 billion to bioscience and research initiatives this decade.

A large chunk has paid for new research labs such as the TGen building in downtown Phoenix, the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University in Tempe and Bio5 Institute at the University of Arizona. The Legislature this year also approved a stimulus package that would provide $470 million to expand the campus of the UA College of Medicine, in partnership with ASU, in downtown Phoenix.

Science Foundation Arizona secured a $25 million annual commitment over five years from the state Legislature provided that it raises an equal amount from private donors.

The funding commitment is subject to review each year, and groups such as the Arizona Federation of Taxpayers have targeted the foundation for cuts in past years.

The nonprofit foundation uses the state money to fund grants for everything from science education in high school to new research projects that cement ties between university researchers and large corporations in Arizona.

William Harris, the foundation’s chief executive officer, said the group already has secured its matching private funds for 2009 from a large base of donors. Harris realizes that Napolitano has been the foundation’s prime backer, but he also has high hopes that successor Jan Brewer, a fiscal conservative, will support the foundation’s goals of strengthening the state’s economy through targeted investments in science and research.

“We have to control our own destiny and get out of this ditch we’re in,” said Harris, who modeled the foundation after a similar group he led in Ireland. “We do that by diversifying our economy and strengthening our education in Arizona.”

Climate change

Napolitano’s departure could also portend a major shift in policy for one of her biggest local priorities: climate change.

Environmental groups, elected officials and other political watchers say that a new Republican administration would likely significantly reduce Arizona’s involvement in the Western Climate Initiative.

Napolitano was a founding member of the regional effort, which brings several Western states and a handful of Canadian provinces together to limit and reduce man-made greenhouse gases, among other things.

“As far as what I know about Jan Brewer, I would say she is probably not going to go along with (the WCI),” said Republican Rep. Ray Barnes, who serves as chairman of the House Environment Committee, adding that other priorities, such as dealing with the state’s billion-dollar budget deficit, would likely be higher on the new governor’s to-do list.

Educators agree that Napolitano’s most substantial contributions were providing free full-day kindergarten, allocating new money to rebuild dilapidated buildings on state university campuses and preventing cuts to existing education budgets.

With Napolitano’s expected departure, some education leaders worry about keeping the gains made under her leadership, but many expect Brewer to be a similar, practical politician. Brewer has not been willing to talk about her role as governor or her education agenda.

“I’m sure Miss Brewer will have the best interests of the state at heart and a good agenda at all levels,” said Fred Boice, president of the Arizona State Board of Regents, which oversees the state’s three universities.