Cities, counties, states; every political entity in our country is driving to develop a biotechnology presence in its respective region. High-tech in general and biotechnology in particular is a jewel in the crown for a developmental agency; clean, prestigious, and high-paying—it promises an escape from the downward cycle of plant closings and loss of tax base that torments so much of the United States.
Yet, building a new industrial paradigm is slow, costly, and complex, as many would-be saviors of the American economic scene are finding. Private high-tech companies are attracted to a particular region by a mix of features and incentives. These include substantive and subjective factors, including physical infrastructure, quality of the work force, tax breaks and outright grants of moneys, connections with top-tier academic institutions and training programs at all levels. Without a thorough knowledge of what’s been tried, what works and what doesn’t, resources and energy may be squandered on fruitless pursuits.
Fortunately, there is a model for such a development scheme whose history goes back more than a half century, providing us with a detailed and realistic picture of the perils and triumphs of building a high-tech sector in a previously low-tech industrial belt.
In the 1950s North Carolina, like the rest of the South, had an economy based largely on farming and low-tech manufacturing, such as textiles and furniture. A group of private investors established a research park near Raleigh in a pine forest, a region that was felt to be at the time in the middle of nowhere. Their concept was to sell space in the park to large corporations, such as chemical companies, that possessed a substantial R&D component. Zoning laws guaranteed a park-like setting with low-slung architecture and lots of green space. The Research Triangle Park flourished over the years, and became the driving force behind North Carolina’s effort to develop a high-tech sector of its economy. The combination of expansion within the academic and private sectors served as an impetus to the federal government to establish the NIH Institute of Environmental Sciences in the Research Triangle region. As years passed other parks emerged, including the Centennial campus at NC State and the Piedmont Triangle Research Park in Winston-Salem.
By 1981 biotechnology had attracted the interest of Wall Street and a number of pharma companies had established facilities in North Carolina. The state had always had a strong commitment to agricultural research, so there was a natural proclivity and strong demand for training in the life sciences. The North Carolina Biotechnology Center was conceived in the early 1980s and established in 1984 with the mission of providing long-term economic benefits to the state through support of biotech research, business, and education. The center was well positioned to facilitate development of a comprehensive biotech education collaboration to train between 2,000 and 3,000 students per year. In 2004 the state established the North Carolina Biomanufacturing and Pharmaceutical Training Consortium in order to advance, share, and coordinate the training of a skilled life sciences work force.
North Carolina’s accomplishments in building an integrated life sciences training program are certainly unique. Many states and academic institutions offer training programs in the life sciences, but frequently they do not draw on input from the industries that they serve. Without a knowledge of the needs of the bioscience industrial sector and a focus on the needs of the students, much of their training may be of limited value.
However, the consortium is special in that it represents a program that draws on the expertise of the private sector, and it responds to its educational needs. The consortium concentrates on the delivery of an integrated, cooperative, and coherent educational program that provides both the hands-on training and theoretical education necessary to meet the needs of the industry. This includes programs aimed at stimulating K-12 students to pursue careers in the biosciences, as well as training programs at the community college, university, and graduate school levels.
Not only does the program train students pursuing a conventional educational path, but it also retrains many older workers who have been displaced from traditional factory jobs. Using funds from their tobacco settlement, North Carolina has established the Bioprocessing in the Workplace Initiative, which uses a series of courses offered as modules to train both beginners as well as older workers who want to advance their knowledge of bioprocessing. The total life sciences work force now numbers 40,000 throughout the state.
“We believe we’re running a marathon, not producing a sound bite,” says Jim Fain, the North Carolina Secretary of Commerce. Although Fain was appointed by Democratic Governor Mike Easley, he feels that the state’s long-term commitment to bioeducation is nonpartisan, having endured intact through both Democratic and Republican administrations. “North Carolina has always had a broad progressive political center,” Fain states, “and I’m certain that the voters will always be willing to provide solid financial support to education.”
North Carolina’s long march to a high-tech presence has produced a complex of academic institutions, private companies, and research institutes tied together with what is probably the best conceived and integrated biotraining program in the nation. However, high-tech is just one component of the economic picture, and the number of employees in the bioscience professions (about 1.2 million) pales in comparison to the total US workforce of 145,000,000. Despite the high quality jobs that the bioscience area provides, this number is so small that its impact on the overall employment picture is modest. Although the state has made impressive gains in the last half century, its median income is still 35th in the nation, and it lags way behind states such as California and Maryland, renowned for their biotechnology establishment.
The biosciences provide prestigious, quality professional opportunities and their accomplishments advance agriculture, medicine, and industry. They are an essential component of an economic picture, contributing much to quality of life. However, it is important to recognize that they are only one piece of the picture, and that by itself bioscience cannot solve the chronic problems that bedevil our economy.