When the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge was new, it was a scandal.
Why? Because neither the state nor LSU had funded its operations. It became a symbol of the state's lack of ambition in science.
That problem of 30 years ago was eventually answered when some funding arrived, but it is a reminder of how Louisiana has neglected its opportunities in science -- and particularly in biological sciences — to create new jobs in our state.
The center’s original structures were a major gift from the late C.B. “Doc” Pennington, an oilman who had an interest in nutritional science. At the time, when computer technology was transforming American life, this perhaps seemed a modest area of scientific interest.
Doc was on to something; the biosciences have exploded over the past 30 years.
Pennington’s researchers have also won grants, corporate and public, that have generated jobs for the region. Clinical studies at its facility are the sort of clean, nonpolluting jobs that every community wants to have.
Its impact economically was brought into focus lately when the center was awarded major grants from the U.S. Department of Defense to assess the nutritional needs of service members. The basic research in areas involving nutrition and health of soldiers has been part of Pennington for decades. The center has studied how nutrition makes warriors more resilient against stress in elite services like the Rangers or SEALs, who might need twice or more the calories of a normal person.
The studies will support directly 23 jobs at the center, of the more than 450 employed there.
Reflect on the numbers: The state of Louisiana might spend hundreds of millions in direct subsidies or tax breaks to attract a major petrochemical facility, employing fewer folks than that. But Pennington, like colleges slashed in funding during the two terms of Gov. Bobby Jindal and a compliant Legislature, must depend on annual appropriations.
The center does not have students and thus cannot charge tuition, but it is part of LSU’s overall research mission.
While a new governor and Legislature have balanced the budget without further deep cuts in higher education, Pennington — and it is not alone, considering the LSU health science centers in New Orleans and Shreveport, and research generally on other campuses — is still in recovery from the Jindal years. This year, Pennington received $1 million extra from the Legislature for retention and recruitment of key faculty, who might bring several times that level of funding with them.
Yet the institution is probably $30 million a year or more short of firing on all cylinders..
It is an example of previous economic development malpractice by Pennington’s political masters.