Reuven Carlyle: Massive Expansion of the UW School of Medicine

Reuven Carlyle Thinks Big: Let the University of Washington Buy The Amgen Campus


First it was Washington State University proposing to create a new medical school in Spokane for the absurdly low annual cost  of 24 million dollars.    Now, over at his blog, State Representative Reuven Carlyle has proposed that the State  buy the deserted Amgen Campus and retask it as a hugely expanded UW School of Medicine.

I think this is a wonderful idea.  Promoting  the University of Washington as a research institution is  central to any real plan for the future of Seattle. Unfortunately, few politicians  in Olympia or DC  have had this kind of vision.  My hat is off to Reuven.

Reuven’s remarks:

He sees the “University if Washington as an umbrella institution and framework {that) owns the facility for the greater good.  It is a natural fit.This is a once-in-100-year opportunity.  It is too important to the next generation of our community not to connect the various silos of our economy, society and region together in a responsible fashion.  The University of Washington could, as a public institution, coordinate the opportunities for 21st Century research and development (you should see the quality of the labs) for educational and commercial partners throughout the state.  And the linkage with other aspects of the waterfront work as well.  The grain elevator next door, for example, is not a quaint relic but a hard-working delivery system of agricultural products from Central and Eastern Washington to the Port of Seattle to be sent to Asian markets. ….I call on the leadership and board of trustees of the University of Washington to seize this extraordinary opportunity and purchase the facility within its existing, long-term capital planning for the UW Medical Center and other schools and programs within the institution.”

I worry that Reuven, like the boosters at WSU,  does not understand the difficult problems facing the UW if it took on this challenge:

1.  Filling the Amgen campus will need new endowment.  The UW School of Medicine  is easily within the top 10 medical schools in the United States.  That statement reflects not only popularity measured by the US News and World Report, but  hard dollars dispensed by the National Institutes of Health.  Every year we come out within the top five NIH funded institutions.

What Reuven may not understand is that our ability,  including the ability of the Hutch and other Seattle research institutions,  to compete, is probably going to greatly decrease.  Hiring new faculty and keeping established faculty depend to a great extent on endowment.  Our biggest competitors are Harvard, Hopkins, University of Pennsylvania, Stanford.  We also compete with state schools like UCSF, UNC, UCSD.  The private schools have endowments far in excess of the meager state funds that support the University of Washington. The competitive state schools are better funded by their states and are located in close proximity to well-endowed private schools creating a package that is very attractive to biotech.

As a  businessman,  Reuven might also want to look at the  “package” being offered to attract a  well qualified  young professor in molecular biology.  A reasonable package  starts   today at $1 million and can easily go up to the tens of millions.  A part of that offer is the need for an endowment {or a state line)  able to support tenure.  At today’s low interest rates, the UW needs 2  to 3 million in the bank just to pay a salary.

2. The Failure of SLU as a Biotech Lakeside … “build it and they will come”.  The South Lake Union campus  was created as a “Field of Dreams.”   The UW administration, Seattle politicians, and  Vulcan proposed rebuilding Seattle’s warehouse district as a Biotech Village.  The village located along the shores of Lake Union was supposed to act as a soil for implantation of the seeds of a biotech industry like the ones in South San Francisco, Cambridge Massachusetts, or San Diego. That dream has failed.  The pioneers, Zymogenetics, Merck/Rosetta, ICOS, Genetic Systems and AMGEN are gone.  While few small startups remain, most of South Lake Union is either Amazon or nonprofits including the new Allen Brain Institute, or buildings for the UW School of Medicine, and Seattle Children’s Research Institute.   

3. The Legislature’s History of Creating New UW or WSU Campuses Shows a Small Vision.  The University of Washington has already created two branch campuses. UW Bothell and UW Tacoma.  These are hardly the kinds of hubs that Representative Carlyle envisions.  Rather than developing new institutions devoted to areas of excellence, for example the badly needed Washington State Polytechnical promoted by Everett,  the Legislature chose to create  classrooms  filled with students taught by non-tenure-track faculty.  These faculty lack the critical mass of researchers needed  to provide the kind of stimulus that attracts existing companies  to move here or fosters entrepreneurial efforts that can grow in our soil.

There is no reason to believe that the Amgen campus could become Biotech on the Sound unless some, as yet unknown, billionaire, wants to create a great, well endowed research institute,

I certainly do not want to discourage Representative Carlyle.  Perhaps there is a donor who can be excited by Reuven’s vision.  Seattle certainly has  billionaires.  Perhaps Amgen’s departure might be an opportunity to create the Washington  Polytechnical Institute that Everett wanted.  Such an  Institute could offer technical education to many more students that cannot be served well on the UW campus and build new faculty upon the strengths already existing in the UW’s departments of chemistry, physics, and now as well, obviously, as our great strengths in engineering.

Finally, I want to finish by praising Reuven  for one more thing.  He clearly understands that his proposal would require joint activity not only by various parts of the University of Washington but by the broader Seattle community,  including government as well as private industry.  Indeed, I suspect that any real success will require a statewide effort involving the other universities.

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