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Minnesota Partnership Expects Deficit-Driven Cuts

By Matt Jones

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – The Minnesota Partnership for Biotechnology and Medical Genomics is likely to see its budget sheared as Minnesota grapples with an estimated $5.8 billion budget shortfall over the next two-year period and makes cuts across the government.

The partnership between Mayo Clinic and The University of Minnesota, which is funded in large part by the state, would see its planned budget of around $7 million cut by roughly $413,000 this year and next year each, leaving it with just over $6.5 million per year from the state, Eric Wieben, director of Mayo Clinic's Genomics Research Center, told GenomeWeb Daily News yesterday.

Wieben said that the state is "in a very difficult situation," and lawmakers and Governor Mark Dayton are "trying to balance their competing priorities" by looking for places to cut.

The "hopeful sign" that he sees is that the cut at the partnership is proportional to the overall budget deficit for the state. "We're not being cut deeper than the average program" and not being singled out for cuts, he said.

The original budget for the partnership was to be $8 million per year on a continuing basis, starting in 2005, but its budget for 2011 was cut to around $7.5 million during former Governor Tim Pawlenty's administration.

"We feel that we've got a really good track record of success, and that we've done good things that the state has been able to invest in us so far, and we have a lot of programs and projects ongoing that we think are very worthy of support," said Wieben. "So, we hope to do better as the economy improves."

Wieben explained that many of the Minnesota Partnership's research programs focus on problems that face not only Minnesota but the rest of the country, including research in areas such as glioma studies, new approaches to preventing and treating diabetes, and projects using stem cell therapies to treat cardiac disease, among others.

The partnership also has used state funding to develop its infrastructure, such as adding next-generation sequencing technologies at both Mayo Clinic and the University of Minnesota, Wieben said.

"We're in the process of trying to evaluate how we might be able to accommodate that level of cuts and still be able to accomplish the most essential parts of our core efforts, which is to support high quality collaborative research between these two institutions on a competitive basis," he said.

Wieben said state funding fills an important niche for a partnership between two research institutes with large research budgets.

"[It] allows us to develop things that have a higher potential for commercial success — because part of our charge is to build jobs as well as doing cutting edge research — and to initiate projects that probably are a little more risky than what you see at the [National Institutes of Health] level, and to provide some preliminary data that are used to sustain or create more NIH funding in the future," he told GWDN.

Another goal is to move that research into commercial ventures in the future, he said. Although the partnership is still too new to have spun out commercial entities and generate revenues, he said, there are ongoing activities aimed at developing new companies from previous partnership activities. He also noted that the partnership has been responsible for six patent applications.

"It's a long road to go from a scientific project to a new company," he said.

According to Wieben, the partnership has been able to leverage its research into $80 million in total NIH funding and another $20 million in corporate funding to support competitive research projects. Such funds have enabled the partnership to have a beneficial economic impact, he suggested.

"Even a conservative estimate would suggest that we've created or sustained more than 2,000 jobs in the state," said Wieben.

Wieben said the funding cuts have made a real impact on the partnership's decision making.

"As our funding gets cut we've been able to support less projects, and that means that fewer of our investigative teams are able to get their projects off the ground … and that means that the timeline to these things reaching fruition is extended," he said.

The partnership has been supporting between eight and 10 projects per year, but in 2010 it only was able to support five, Wieben said. "So, that will slow the return from NIH and future economic activities."

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