BOSTON (AP) – It was one of Gov. Deval Patrick’s signature
pieces of legislation, a $1 billion, 10-year initiative designed to make
Massachusetts a magnet for an industry that holds the potential for breathtaking
– and lucrative – medical breakthroughs.

But a year after Patrick signed
the Massachusetts Life Sciences Initiative not everyone is cheering.

With
the state raising taxes and slashing services, some are wondering if
Massachusetts can still afford such a big-ticket endeavor.

At the same
time, unions are faulting what they call a giveaway to an industry that hasn’t
done enough to ensure construction jobs funded in part with tax dollars also
come with good wages and benefits.

But backers of the initiative are
claiming successes large and small, from helping Cambridge-based Genzyme Corp.
build a new biomanufacturing facility in Framingham to seeding the next
generation of researchers by offering internships to college
students.

“This is a real economic engine for the state at a time when
the state is struggling,” said Susan Windham-Bannister, CEO and president of the
Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, the quasi-public agency overseeing the
initiative.

During the initiative’s first year, she said, the state spent
$46 million to leverage $357 million in matching dollars, most from the private
sector.

That translates into about 950 jobs – not only in construction
but also permanent, higher wage jobs, she said.

“We’ve taken every
taxpayer dollar and turned it into an additional $8 dollars of investment,” she
said.

Dr. Richard Lee, a cardiologist at Brigham & Women’s Hospital,
is one of those benefiting from the initiative. Lee will receive $250,000 each
year for three years to fund his work modifying a normal human protein to help
heal cartilage injuries.

“It came out of basic science being done in our
lab but it has real potential if you acutely hurt the cartilage in your knee or
for certain types of arthritis,” Lee said.

The grant also has allowed him to form a partnership with
Milford-based Biomeasure Inc. with an eye toward turning the research into a
drug.

Despite the potential, not everyone is convinced the initiative is
worth the cost.

Senate Minority Leader Richard Tisei, R-Wakefield, said
it’s both shortsighted and unfair to create a lavish new initiative for a single
industry while hiking sales and meals taxes that could harm retailers and
restaurant owners.

“We should be concentrating on lifting all boats
rather than just one specific industry,” he said.

Tisei said the state
should instead focus on lowering the overall cost of business in Massachusetts
to lure all types of industries.

The initiative also is raising the ire
of union leaders who say some of the contractors benefiting from the initiative
aren’t doing enough to hire union workers or provide decent benefits and
wages.

Frank Callahan, president of the Massachusetts Building Trades
Council which represents 74 local construction unions, said biotech construction
projects require specialized piping and construction skills.

He’s said
the unions have been able to provide those skilled workers in the
past.

“We’ve delivered quality projects for these guys on time and on
budget and some of them have decided to slam the door on people who have
delivered for them,” he said.

Windham-Bannister said the center has
worked closely with the unions and is keeping an eye on fair labor
practices.

She said one project that has received $10 million in life
sciences funds – a major renovation to the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods
Hole – used union labor.

The Woods Hole project is one of three major
projects to receive life sciences grants.

The other two include the
Genzyme biomanufacturing facility in Framingham and the Cummings School of
Veterinary at Tufts University in North Grafton.

For the Genzyme project,
the state gave Framingham $12 million for a pumping center needed to accommodate
the wastewater runoff from the biomanufacturing facility, which is expected to
employ about 300 workers.

The $9 million for the Tufts veterinary school
will purchase equipment for a Level 3 biosafety lab, one of just 13 in the
country, to study the transmission of diseases from mosquitoes, insects or other
animals to humans.

The center also awards smaller grants and tax
incentives to researchers, students, start-up biotech companies and
universities.

The goal, Windham-Bannister, is to nurture the state’s
growing life sciences cluster at a time when other states are trying to lure
away companies and researchers from Massachusetts.

She said the
investment of scarce state dollars makes sense in the long run.

“We would
be doing even more poorly in Massachusetts if we didn’t have the life science
cluster,” she said. “The goal is to invest to keep this engine revved up.”


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