commentary

(Seattle Times)

September 30, 2002

Creating a World Center for Scientist-Explorers

by Lee Huntsman, Kenneth Shine, Dean Allen

Because of its remarkable assets in science, education and technology, our Puget Sound metropolitan community has an excellent opportunity to be a world leader in the exciting convergence of biology and information systems.

We can bring some vitally important benefits to our region, almost beyond imagining: improved health, economic vitality, job creation and strengthened education. But we can't just sit back and wait for such wonderful things to happen.

Cities and countries around the world are launching aggressive strategies to pursue exactly the leadership position that we have the potential to achieve. We need a bold, active and energized initiative to define our future. We need it now.

The opportunity we're talking about comes just at the moment in the science of biology when we can begin to envision developing the first "Hubble observatory" for biology. Only this "Hubble" for bioscience will not be a single instrument, like the one floating out in space.

Ours will be a steadily evolving platform created and advanced by a community of experts working individually and together. Scientist-explorers of the living cell will be able to utilize advanced imaging, cell biology, computing, communications and visualization technologies, the convergence of which will enable them to build and extend the powerful high-tech observation platforms they'll need to better understand living systems.

And this community will be for others, too. Researchers, and students, at the University of Washington campuses in Seattle, Tacoma and Bothell, the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, the bioscience companies and institutes in and around our area all will be able to participate in and benefit from such a new center dedicated to exploring and experiencing the inner workings of the living cell.

Can we do this? The answer is an emphatic yes!

Many of the essential ingredients already are in place. Our region is blessed with an exceptional concentration of imaginative leaders and intellectual and economic capital. The area, renowned for its beauty, is linked by interconnecting waterways. All these can be combined for the most critical scientific endeavor — understanding living systems.

To bring this vision into reality, an organization is being formed under the name "Explore Life."

Its mandate is to shape an integrative, economically sustainable scientific community.

This regional effort will unfold in two parts: first, a multi-institutional community of science where people will work and live; second, the creation of an interlinking communications infrastructure to the region's other major science enterprises. Both are to be located in Renton on a 150-acre waterfront site that includes about 80 acres being surplused by Boeing.

Our region's waterways will serve as a principal means to connect this integrated science community with major research enterprises at the University of Washington and South Lake Union.

Modern broadband technology will help ensure that as scientists, engineers, physicians, students and the public ply the waterways from one site to another, they remain connected to colleagues, as well as to the digital libraries and cellular observatories that will be pioneered here.

In a real sense, the region will become the "Constantinople of Biology": an international nexus for the exchange of ideas, applications, observations and services.

It is no secret that other cities want to attract bioscience enterprises and institutions to spur their own local economies. Some are worthy competitors. Our community, halfway between Europe and Asia, is home to such established high-tech giants as Boeing and Microsoft, and premier research institutions such as the "Hutch" and the UW. It has a tradition of sponsoring seminal events that shaped our future, such as the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition and the 1962 World's Fair. These and other assets make us competitive at the top tier.

"Explore Life" can become a unique and important international center, attracting many of the finest scientists from across the United States and around the world. These men and women will conduct scientific investigations that will advance existing knowledge and lead to new knowledge. The results of their work will produce improvements in health, health care and new commercial enterprises.

Our region has what it takes to launch and sustain such an exploratory adventure and at the same time build a stronger economy, of which bioscience is one of its sturdiest pillars. This ambitious goal is within our grasp. It is up to us to reach for it.


Lee Huntsman is provost and a professor of bioengineering at the University of Washington. Ken Shine is director of the RAND Center for Domestic and International Health Security in Arlington, Va., and the immediate past president of the Institute of Medicine. Dean Allen, president of McKinstry Co. in Seattle, is chairman of the board for the Seattle Biomedical Research Institute.

This commentary originally appeared in Seattle Times on September 30, 2002.