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Minnesota Legislator Aims to Stop Further Funding Cuts to Genomics Partnership

By Alex Philippidis

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – A Minnesota legislator is working to bar future cuts in funding for the Minnesota Partnership for Biotechnology and Medical Genomics with an aim of avoiding future reductions, such as the $427,000 permanent annual cut included in a budget measure signed last week by Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

Minnesota Rep. Kim Norton (DFL-Rochester) told GenomeWeb Daily News today that she is working with the chair of the state House of Representatives' Higher Education and Workforce Development Committee, Rep. Tom Rukavina (DFL-Virginia), to insert into another bill this year an amendment barring the University of Minnesota from making further funding cuts to the partnership, as have occurred during two previous years of budget reductions.

The Minnesota Partnership for Biotechnology and Medical Genomics is a joint research collaboration of the Mayo Clinic and the University of Minnesota.

"I have spoken to the higher ed committee chair, and he was agreeable that that would be something worth pursuing," Norton said. "I'll continue to try to do that, just so we don't continue to see the funding for this erode. We just really want this to be used for the genomics partnership for research, and hopefully, to take things to the bench so we get economic growth from these products and discoveries."

Norton spoke a week after Minnesota's House of Representatives and Senate on March 29 approved a supplemental budget bill that sliced $312 million from the state's approximately $1 billion budget deficit for the fiscal year that begins July 1. As part of the measure, a conference committee from both houses approved the ongoing $427,000-a-year reduction for the biotech and genomics partnership, which now receives about $8 million annually in state funds.

Norton said the budget bill originally included her amendment barring additional cuts in partnership funding from the university, following talks with Rukavina and House Bioscience and Workforce Development Committee Chair Rep. Tim Mahoney (DFL-St. Paul).

"They were pretty insistent that the genomics partnership had to take a cut from the Legislature," Norton said, since other state-funded programs have been cut this year due to the economy and state budget shortfall.

However, the no-further-cuts language was eliminated from the conference committee version of the budget bill by either the state Senate or Pawlenty. "I was furious," Norton said.

Mayo spokesman Bob Nellis told GWDN the funding cut would result in one fewer research project receiving funding each year from the partnership, which typically awards competitive grants to about six research projects annually.

The cut will not affect any existing projects, including the six projects that were approved for a combined nearly $5 million in funding from the partnership in February, Nellis said.

"We're going to do a little less science within the partnership, but this is not necessarily couched as a permanent situation. Everybody's belt-tightening all over the country," Nellis said. "It's significant that this state is funding research to a level that is still significant."

Through the partnership, teams of researchers from Mayo and the university receive funding for two years, with the goal of developing intellectual property or attracting additional research support from federal or private sources.

"These are what we'll call seed or startup grants. People have an idea, they think it's really good, but you can't just have an idea and go to the NIH," Nellis said.

The partnership awards the larger share of its state funding in research grants — ranging from a half-million dollars to $1 million — and a smaller share of that funding toward grants for equipment, software, and other infrastructure needed by researchers.