By Jeffrey Selingo
When California voters passed a
$3 billion ballot initiative in
November to pay for stem-cell research,
little did they know that they would
ignite a firestorm of copycat measures
in statehouses across the country.
In the months after the initiative
was approved, lawmakers in Wisconsin,
Illinois, New York, and New Jersey,
among others, proposed their own
stem-cell research programs, worth
up to $1 billion, out of fear that
scientists at their universities
would follow the money and head
The state efforts were aimed at
trying to fill a void left by the
federal government in 2001, when
President George W. Bush restricted
funds from the National Institutes
of Health for stem-cell research.
"We can't just sit around
and wait for the administration
to change its policy," said
Lawrence S.B. Goldstein, a neurobiologist
at the University of California—San
Diego, last fall during the campaign
for the stem-cell initiative. "At
some point, the states have to take
the lead in this area."
And not just on stem-cell research.
Frustrated by the slow growth in
federal research funds and the inability
of their small universities to snag
a bigger piece of that federal pie,
states are increasingly becoming
more aggressive about providing
their own dollars for research.
To be sure, the state dollars are
still small compared with what the
federal government provides, and
most of the state money is geared
toward applied research that can
pay economic dividends rather than
the basic research the federal government
tends to fund. Even so, the trend
of states taking the lead in setting
research priorities concerns some
scientists, including engineers,
who worry that state lawmakers may
be interested only in current fads,
such as stem-cell research, as well
as quick results.
"The federal government tends
to take the long view on research,"
says B. Jayant Baliga, a professor
of electrical engineering at North
Carolina State University. "States
have less patience, so there is
a danger that if something good
is not coming out of the research
they are funding, they will give
up after a few years."
Case in point: The Microelectronics
Center of North Carolina (MCNC).
Founded by North Carolina in 1980
in Research Triangle Park, the center
was created to help attract the
semiconductor industry to the state,
which at the time was reliant on
manufacturing. The state invested
more than $200 million in the center
but was never successful in luring
semiconductor companies. "We
did bring in a lot of companies
in related fields, like IBM,"
Baliga said. "But in the end,
the state came to the conclusion
that the center was not sufficient
to attract what it wanted."
So about five years ago, the MCNC
was spun off into an independent
entity free of any state control
and, of course, public dollars.
"I was using it for my research,
and they cut us all off,"
Not only is the federal government
likely to stick to a research agenda
for the long haul, but Baliga and
other experts say federal agencies
are better able than states to ensure
that the wealth is spread around.
"States have to balance their
budgets, so they can't just
pour money into losing efforts,"
says Bill Drohaun, executive director
of the Association of University
Related Research Parks, which in
many places are incubators for state
research programs. "The federal
government runs a deficit, so it
can take more chances on research."
While there is a lot of disagreement
among scientists about the fairness
of how federal agencies dole out
their money through the peer-review
process—which some believe
favors more established institutions
with vast research facilities and
big budgets—even critics concede
that in the end, small states have
the capacity to conduct research
only because of the federal government's
But when states take the lead in
funding research, the spoils are
more likely to go to the big states
with their large budgets. One example
is California's $3 billion
stem-cell initiative. Another is
a deal New York has put together
over the past several years that
has siphoned some $850 million dollars
for nanoscience research at the
State University of New York—Albany.
The effort began in 2001, when
IBM and New York agreed to spend
$150 million dollars to upgrade
facilities. The following summer,
International Sematech, a consortium
of 12 semiconductor makers, pledged
to spend $193 million over five
years to build a center that would
research faster microchips. After
the state agreed to put forward
another $210 million, Tokyo Electron
Ltd., a Japanese company that builds
tools used to make microchips, said
it would build its own research
center in Albany.
The infusion of cash led state
officials to dream that Albany would
become the next Austin, Texas, where
an economic boom was spurred in
part by Sematech's decision
in 1988 to locate its headquarters
"Companies looking to establish
R&D and manufacturing are getting
aggressively wooed by government
and business entities that fully
understand the benefits of each
economic expansion opportunity,"
says Alain E. Kaloyeros, the vice
president and chief administrative
officer of the College of Nanoscale
Science and Engineering at Albany,
who played a key role in the Sematech
deal. "Without a statewide
or regional economic development
strategy, you can't even be
in the game."
But some researchers question whether
SUNY-Albany should even be in the
game at all. The institution is
improving its facilities, but they
note it could take years before
Albany is able to attract top-notch
graduate students and professors
who now flock to places like the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
or the University of California—Berkeley.
"The federal government would
never give Albany this amount of
money because it knows they don't
have the capacity yet," says
an electrical-engineering professor
at a California university who has
reviewed projects at Albany and
wishes to remain anonymous.
Kaloyeros admits that Albany is
not an "established institution
with decades worth of national lobbying
exposure," but with the infusion
of state dollars he hopes to one
day join those ranks. "The
best long-term strategy is one that
involves both state and federal
funding," Kaloyeros says,
"since the resources are so
much greater on the national level."
At least for now, President Bush's
budget for science in the 2006 fiscal
year provides only slight increases
for the National Science Foundation
and cuts for several other agencies
that pay for research in the physical
sciences and engineering. Spending
for basic research in all would
fall by 1 percent. That comes despite
calls from several bodies, including
the president's own science
advisory panel, for significant
increases in federal support for
the physical sciences.
As a result, states like California
and New York that have the financial
resources are striking out on their
own. That worries some like Dan
Berglund, president of the State
Science and Technology Institute,
a nonprofit group. For one, state
lawmakers usually shun providing
funds for basic research because
it fails to create new industries
and jobs. "When you talk about
things that you can't see
any tangible economic benefit from—the
Hubble Space Telescope, for example—it
makes sense for the feds to pick
up the tab," Berglund says.
What's more, unlike the federal
government, which coordinates its
research agenda among agencies and
sets priorities, states are more
prone to do what their neighbors
are doing or what will provide the
quickest economic stimulus. That's
what is now happening with stem-cell
research, Berglund says. "There
is a void, and California is filling
that void," he says. "There
is strong potential that California
will suck all stem-cell activity
out of other states and move it
there. From a national perspective,
it's not good to have an entire
industry focused in a particular
Which is why other states are trying
to copy California's effort.
But at some point, Drohaun, of the
Association of University Related
Research Parks, said states could
end up providing too much money
to the nascent field of stem-cell
research and simply copy each other's
efforts without adding much value.
At the same time, they could ignore
other research that's important
to their future economic development.
"This is where the federal
government does a good job,"
Drohaun says. "The federal
agencies make sure that spending
is not out of whack with our national
priorities. The haphazardness with
which some states are spending research
money is akin to the federal government
saying it's going to move
all the money it's spending
on cancer research to stem cells."
Indeed, Berglund laughs at all
the states trying to duplicate the
research agenda of neighboring states,
whether it's stem cells or
nanosience. "It's all
about keeping up with the Joneses,"
he says. "If you don't
have a competitive advantage already,
it doesn't make sense for
you to throw $10 or $15 million
in the hopes that you will."
Jeffrey Selingo is a freelance
writer based in Washington, D.C.