Op-Ed: Lawmakers: Invest in attracting top scientists to NY state

By Sean Ryan & Al StirpeNYS Legislature members

NYS Capitol

The New York state Capitol is seen in Albany, N.Y., Tuesday, June 20, 2023. (Hans Pennink | AP)AP Photo/Hans Pennink, File

Sen. Sean Ryan represents the Buffalo area in the New York state Legislature. Assemblymember Al Stirpe represents Cicero. They are both Democrats.

New York State’s medical schools graduated 2,628 students in 2022, the greatest number in any state across the country. California and Texas followed with roughly 1,700 and 1,900 graduates, respectively.

These academic institutions do more than produce future physicians. They are huge drivers of economic development that bring in millions of dollars in research funding and create high-paying jobs.

New York state is the third-largest recipient of federal funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), with $3.6 billion supporting nearly 6,500 research projects in 2023. Of that total, $2.5 billion — more than 70% — was awarded to scientists at New York state medical schools. Superstar scientists not only drive breakthroughs in their own labs — often leading to new patents, spinout companies and licensing deals with bio-pharmaceutical companies — they also spur collaboration, elevate the productivity of their colleagues, teach and inspire the next generation of researchers at the state’s medical schools.

But New York state must do more to maintain its position as a leader in scientific research. The state’s commitment to attracting and retaining top scientific talent lags behind its competitors, making it harder for New York institutions to compete in recruiting talent.

In 2020, California invested $5.5 billion in the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, bringing the total investment to $10.5 billion. In 2019, Texas invested a new $3 billion in its Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT), bringing its total investment to $6 billion. Since 2009, CPRIT has awarded $854 million to support out-of-state recruitments. Meanwhile, in 2021, New York terminated the Empire State Stem Cell (NYSTEM) program, which funded many early-career scientists, creating a potential brain drain in stem cell research.

Most funding is awarded to scientists, not academic institutions. If those scientists leave New York for opportunities elsewhere, their funding follows them out of state. That’s why the Associated Medical Schools of New York launched the New York Fund for Innovation in Research and Scientific Talent (NYFIRST) program in 2018. Using State funding, NYFIRST supports New York’s medical schools by providing a maximum grant of $1 million to eligible schools to modernize, renovate and upgrade labs to help attract and retain world-class scientists.

The state’s $1 million investment is matched by the medical schools 2-to-1. On average, every dollar invested by New York state in NYFIRST has resulted in an additional $3.72 in economic activity. In total, NYFIRST has helped New York’s medical schools bring in more than $86 million in new funding to the state and created 186 new jobs with an average salary of $74,058, all from the initial $15 million state investment allocated in 2018.

However, with that initial funding nearly depleted, New York state risks losing all of these benefits if we do not commit to funding NYFIRST once again in this year’s state budget. By allocating another $25 million to this successful program, we can continue to enjoy a huge return on investment for a small fraction of the state budget.

Empire State Development and the state’s academic institutions are already investing in building infrastructure to support and expand our capacity in biomedical research and life sciences. These major capital investments will require a highly skilled and talented workforce to maximize the potential of these facilities. NYFIRST supports the recruitment and retention of global leaders in their fields — precisely the sort of talent that can drive breakthroughs and establish New York state as a global powerhouse in biomedical research and life sciences.

New York state must rise to the occasion and act to maintain its critical position as a leader in research. Supporting and leveraging its academic institutions for economic development through NYFIRST has proven to be successful and a pathway for the future. If we do not continue to invest in NYFIRST, a modest investment in the current budget, New York State will lose its momentum in bringing crucial research talent, scientific facilities and jobs to the state.