Barbara Shelly

Hey, what’s up with you and that Jackson County research tax?

Updated: 2013-10-26T23:31:43Z

By BARBARA SHELLY

The Kansas City Star

Call it an occupational hazard. I’ll be on the phone or at the grocery store or the gym and somebody will ask me why I’m supporting the Jackson County research tax.

That would be Question 1 on the Jackson County ballot on Nov. 5, a request for a half-cent sales tax increase that would raise about $40 million a year to support an emerging field of research that works to turn scientific discoveries into new medications or tools or medical protocols.

The conversations take different forms. Here’s a composite:

It seems really weird to ask people to support a tax that benefits a certain business.

Not really. In Kansas City, we’ve supported ballot measures that benefit the convention and tourism industries. Their selling points are economic development and civic pride. The research tax idea began as a way to get a jump on a field that has the potential to bring lots of good jobs here. Wouldn’t it also be a source of pride to have a public investment in a research institute that would work on groundbreaking medical discoveries? I think it would be great.

Why can’t drug companies pay for this?

Big pharma isn’t the risk-taking enterprise we think it is. Drug companies want somebody else to test and validate a discovery before they’ll take a chance on moving it along to the market. That work is called “translational research,” and it’s what the research tax would pay for. Experts will tell you a lack of translational research is a big reason we aren’t seeing more breakthrough treatments for diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.

What about the federal government, or local foundations?

The National Institutes of Health awards research grants. They are competitive, though, and they run out. When they do, researchers have to lay off staff and start afresh if they get another grant. The beauty of the sales tax idea is it would guarantee a stream of funding for 20 years.

I suppose it is possible that local foundations could abandon other priorities and invest more in medical research than they already do. But that funding wouldn’t be completely reliable, either, and the foundations would set the agenda. They would have no obligation to engage the public in what’s going on. The research we’re talking about is interesting stuff. If the tax passes, I see opportunities for schools and groups to connect with scientists and get excited about what they’re doing.

Why should we give taxpayer money to hospitals and their rich CEOs?

Did you vote for the Jackson County sales tax to upgrade the sports stadiums? Last I heard, pro athletes and team owners weren’t scraping to get by.

Sorry to be flippant. I feel strongly about this. Thirteen years ago, a great eye surgeon in Kansas City figured out how to use the healing properties of stem cells to halt a long-running inflammation that had torn up the surface of my son’s eye. My kid was 8 years old at the time and translational research enabled him to finally play outside without being pained by the light. I’m certain a lot of other families who have experienced the wonders of medical research will tell you it’s money well spent.

Hospital pricing is a huge issue, but this sales tax would pay researchers, not CEOs. Why is it OK to ask the public to subsidize pro sports but not OK to seek a public investment in science at the local level? I don’t accept that.

If we vote for this, will we really see something come of it?

Yes. Approval would give the University of Missouri-Kansas City a big lift as a research university and increase the area’s capacity for hospital research. We could expect the local investment to multiply with money from federal grants and other sources. The creation of a publicly supported research institute here would encourage collaboration and sharing of ideas. Question 1 is the best chance to boost Kansas City’s identity as a medical research hub. It’s a visionary idea and I’m proud to support it.

To reach Barbara Shelly, call 816-234-4594 or send email to bshelly@kcstar.com. Follow her at Twitter.com/bshelly.

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