The vision: Three thousand people, including some of the nation’s best scientific minds, working right here in the East Valley.
The Arizona Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University would be near a planned light-rail stop, designed in a desert motif, and just a "cool place for scientists to hang out," said ASU President Michael Crow. And, combined with the Genomics Institute in Phoenix, it could fuel the Valley’s economic engine for decades to come.
"This is one of the largest scientific projects ever undertaken in the country," Crow said. "This is almost 1 million square feet of space. It will be thousands of jobs. It will be right here in Tempe. It will be very large-scale, worldclass research."
Money from Proposition 301 — the 0.6 percent sales tax increase for education that voters approved in 2000 — will help fund much of the research. Now ASU needs funds for the actual buildings. So the university has made a request at the Capitol, just as the Legislature struggles to resolve a budget deficit.
A bill would allocate $29 million a year for the next 25 years to ASU and the University of Arizona, sparking a bonanza of construction of world-class research facilities, including part of the Biodesign Institute.
The goal would be to start construction on the buildings in the next three years using bonds, then pay them off over time with the state allocations.
"I think this would probably be one of the most important things we could do in this decade in this state and in the East Valley," said Rep. Mark Thompson, R-Tempe, House sponsor of the bill.
It’s important to fund the future, backers say, even as Arizona struggles to maintain present programs.
"Even in times of dire economic crisis, you can’t just completely go backward," said Sen. Slade Mead, RAhwatukee Foothills, who is sponsoring the bill in the Senate.
The money would go far beyond ASU’s Biodesign Institute. ASU is planning new facilities to research other upcoming areas such as nanotechnology, information sciences and engineering, and high-tech materials. ASU East would also get a new research facility.
ASU’s campus would see a swell of construction in the next few years. The Biodesign Institute alone would be a larger construction project than Bank One Ballpark, Crow said.
Biosciences have captured the nation’s attention, with government leaders betting that a bioscience center would be to their area what hightech is to Silicon Valley.
"Nationally, people are starting to recognize there’s something unusual going on out there," said Jonathan Fink, ASU vice president of research and economic affairs. "Basically, every state has some kind of bio-initiative."
The Biodesign Institute already has experts such as Charles Arntzen, who is researching vaccines that wouldn’t need refrigeration and could be shipped more easily to Third World nations. Dr. Colleen Brophy would research ways to stop patients from rejecting vein grafts used in open heart surgery.
But ASU is looking to recruit more talent to draw precious bioscience grant money to the area. The university has access to funds from the education sales tax to attract faculty and buy the technology.
Competition for the scientists is intense, and they appreciate new facilities, Fink said.
"We’re trying to pick off key faculty from other universities. . . . It’s like baseball. It’s very expensive. It’s very disheartening when you lose one. . . . You want them not only to teach your students, but to drive your economy," Fink said.
Fink tells of bidding for the top minds in the nation.
ASU tried to lure one professor from Penn State, but the university countered with an offer to put his wife on a tenure track and hire five faculty members just to support his research.
Another faculty member at ASU was courted by Michigan State. The professor was interested in working with another faculty member there, so ASU countered with an offer to beef up his salary and hire the other professor as well.
"It says we can play this game, too, but it was very expensive to get them," Fink said. "We can’t just say, ‘We have a warehouse in south Tempe — we’ll cram you in that’ or ‘We’ll put you in an old building on campus.’ "
ASU estimates that for every $1 invested into bioscience research, the Valley would net between $5 and $7 in return. Thompson and Mead said they’re looking for a funding source and creative ideas.
"Five, 10, 15 years from now, you’ll have a funding stream that is much larger than the original investment," Fink said. "But that’s not the perspective that has been in Arizona in the past. The focus has been much more on the short term."