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A Hidden Prescription for Jobs: Global health R&D

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Trumpeting this generation's "Sputnik moment," President Obama doubled down on his call for government investment in innovation and research as part of his State of the Union prescription for America to win the future.

But seemingly lost in Tuesday's speech were more down to earth specifics. Obama mentioned biomedical research, information technology and clean energy technology. All good investments, for sure, but one generator of new jobs he didn't list was global health research and development.

Global health R & D is ultimately going to make people's lives better, whenever researchers finds new ways to curb diseases that respect no national borders. But it's also smart economics. States around the country have pushed investment in it for these reasons. In Washington State, for example, global health activities generate $4.1 billion in business.

Let's take the President's home state of Illinois, and consider what this research could do there. Amid economic crisis, enduring unemployment and anemic growth, the urgency for spending scarce dollars for research on global health may seem distant to Illinois residents, even far from the state's borders.

Think again.

Global health research and development is not only in the health interest of Illinoisans -- it has also become a hidden engine for new jobs and economic growth. Illinois is one of the top 10 bioscience employers in the U.S., and each bioscience job generates on average an additional 5.8 jobs. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates 57,000 people in Illinois work in bioscience, including global health R&D.

The average salary of each job generated by National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding to Illinois is $56,000, while public and private investments in global health R&D have produced tens of thousands of jobs in medicine, research, public health and education for Illinois.

Global health matters to Chicago and Illinois. A recent poll by the non-profit advocacy group Research!America showed 92 percent of residents believe it is important for Illinois to be a leader in health R&D. And 82 percent agreed Americans will be better off if the U.S. government invests in research designed to improve health around the world.

But the survey showed it's not just a question of health and wellness, or simple self-interest. Some 73 percent of respondents said they think global health research is important to jobs, income and the economy of Illinois. There are investment opportunities, Product Development Partnerships (PDP) and economic development goals that can be served by steering state and federal dollars into research and development in global health needs.

Despite pressure to curb spending, we believe it remains the responsibility of Members of Congress to set priorities for our country and provide funding for them. Spending that creates high-tech, high-paying jobs--and at the same time, saves, lengthens and improves the lives of Americans and all peoples--should be seen as one of the nation's highest priorities.

At a recent private dinner in Washington, D.C., a group of Illinois stakeholders from academia, business, medicine and the public sector -- assembled by Research!America -- addressed the need for public investment in global health research through the lens of its impact on job creation and economic recovery.

Mary McEnerney Woolley, a former resident of Elmhurst, IL who is now president and CEO of Research!America, underscored the results of the group's survey, noting that "Illinois is supporting so much global health research and development because people there know it's the right thing to do for this country and the right thing to do for the globe."

In the year ending Sept. 30, 2009, Illinois received $739 million in federal funding from the NIH and $236 million from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And every $1 million NIH invests is estimated to generate more than $2 million in new state business activity.

Alongside a highly-partisan debate over health insurance, shouldn't there to be room for bipartisan consensus on these kinds of targeted investments that potentially improve global health and boost jobs at home?

The impact of science research funding will help shape the next generation of doctors, scientists and researchers in Illinois and beyond.

Undergraduates at universities and liberal arts colleges are drawn to medical research. At Elmhurst College, for example, faculty avidly engage in research in which students are often an important part of the team on projects ranging from cancer cell metastasis to the epidemiology of the West Nile virus.

As diseases cross borders in an era of globalization, the need for global health research will become even more important for Illinois - and the nation -- in the years ahead.

Illinois politicians, institutions and businesses should see it as a long-term opportunity to help save the world, no doubt, but also in the process, to help save the state's shattered economy.

John Edward Porter is a former Illinois Republican member of Congress, a partner with Hogan Lovells and chairman of Research!America. Storer H. Rowley, former National Editor of the Chicago Tribune, is Executive Director, Government and Community Relations, at Elmhurst College.