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Michael O. Leavitt: The key to jobs in Utah lies in life sciences

Published: Sunday, March 6 2011 12:00 a.m. MST

It became a monthly ritual of mine as governor to check the Utah jobs report. Like a physician taking a patient's vital signs, I knew if job growth was good, our overall economic health was strong. Though I am not currently in public service, my interest endures, and periodically I instinctively put my fingers on our state's pulse. This month's Utah jobs report affirmed that we, like other states, face a formidable challenge.

High unemployment persists in our country even as other economic indicators trend positive. Nearly 14 million Americans not only struggle to support their families, but to retain a sense of dignity and self worth. Closer to home, approximately 103,400 Utahns are unemployed — a number more than twice what is considered normal for an economy of our size. Creating jobs is our most urgent public policy challenge because it will cure lots of other public ills.

Every state needs an aggressive jobs agenda, and Utah's should start with policies that foster the state's rapidly growing life sciences sector. The life sciences in Utah include industries involved in medical devices and products, personalized and predictive medicine (genetics, neuroscience, and pharmaceutical research and clinical services), cellular systems and microbe biotechnology.

We should emphasize life sciences for two reasons. First, we have a running start. Many Utahns will know of Utah's niche in life sciences because of our national recognition for developing the first human artificial heart, the first functional prosthetic arm, the discovery of the first breast cancer-causing gene and the cloning of the world's first mule. In fact, the Salt Lake Valley earned the nickname "bio-valley" from Science Digest because of the number of successful biotech companies located between our northern mountain ranges. The life science industry employs approximately 30,000 Utahns, has revenues in excess of $15 billion and pays an annual wage nearly 50 percent higher than the average.

The second reason to focus on life science jobs is that each high-paying job created — whether it be an engineer, scientist or lab tech — generates additional economic activity. Analysts estimate that for every 100 jobs created in the life science industry, approximately 260 other jobs are created throughout the economy. So in a very real sense, when you employ a scientist, you also employ a plumber, a carpenter or a school teacher.

Great economies don't just happen; they come from purposeful economic leadership. We can create a future where the convergence of technologies that Utah is very good at — bioengineering, genetics, information technology, imaging technology and nanotechnology — combine to create breakthroughs in medical devices, diagnostics and drug delivery. In a short period of time (10-15 years, maybe sooner) people will be walking around with nanotechnology devices (implantable or surface mounted) that do real time medical monitoring of key indicators such as glucose monitoring for diabetes and cholesterol monitoring for heart disease. Utah has the data centers and call centers to make us the leaders in this convergence as the data are processed and used by medical practitioners for medical decision making and more importantly, preventive medicine.

Another great example of what the future holds is found in the imaging technology at the University of Utah's Scientific Computing Institute. SCI is increasingly recognized as one of the top medical imaging places in the country. The journal NeuroImage recently released its list of the top 10 most cited articles over the last five years. One of these articles was co-authored by Dr. Guido Gerig, a USTAR professor. SCI Director Dr. Chris Johnson has been honored with numerous awards.

Establishing leadership in biotechnology requires we assure potential employers find Utah as the best place in the world to locate. The state's $130 million investment in the USTAR's biomedical nanotech facility is a big step in the right direction. We need to ensure that our state tax policies enable the industry to prosper as well.

Public service taught me that progress in a community is a generational relay. Each generation of leaders makes its mark and passes the baton to the next. If Utah government leaders will aggressively emphasize development of biotechnology, Utah's economic pulse will be healthy for generations.

Michael O. Leavitt served in the Cabinet of President George W. Bush (Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and Secretary of Health and Human Services) and as a three-time elected governor of Utah. He is the founder and chairman of Leavitt Partners, where he advises clients in the health care and food safety sectors. Learn more at www.leavittpartners.com.

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