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A year on, $1 billion Mass. life sciences act fuels research

Associated Press | 6/24/2009, 4:58 a.m.

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 that 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 coming 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 of investment,” she said.

Dr. Richard Lee, a cardiologist at Brigham and 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 is also 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 is the president of the Massachusetts Building Trades Council, which represents 74 local construction unions. He said biotech construction projects require specialized piping and construction skills, and that 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.