Plans call for 2,500 square feet of shared wet and dry lab space to be constructed at the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center. The facility will be able to accommodate up to 25 companies. Courtesy of CRC.

As the General Assembly weighs whether to fund an ambitious plan to build out tens of thousands of square feet of life sciences labs across the Roanoke and New River valleys, supporters of biomedical research are touting the results of a new survey that says Virginians believe that investing in research is important to the state’s economy.

The survey, commissioned by Research!America, a nonprofit medical and health research advocacy group, in partnership with Virginia Tech, found that 78% of respondents said it’s very important or somewhat important for the state to be a leader in medical and health research, while 84% said spending money on that kind of research is important or somewhat important to Virginia’s economy.

Respondents largely supported spending state and federal money on research but were split on the idea of a tax increase to support it.

Half of respondents said that the U.S. doesn’t spend enough on health research. Three-quarters said they strongly or somewhat agree that Virginia should invest to improve its health research infrastructure, while 70% had the same view of using taxpayer funds to grow Virginia-based medical or health startup companies. 

But only 57% said they’d strongly or somewhat support paying $1 more per week in taxes for more scientific research. The responses to that question broke along clear party lines, with 74% of Democratic respondents and 48% of Republicans saying they would support a $1 weekly tax boost.

“The public’s responses give a voice to sustained and enhanced support for the research

enterprise across all of the state’s universities and with industry,” Michael Friedlander,

Virginia Tech’s vice president for health sciences and technology and executive director of the

Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC, said in a statement. “At Virginia Tech, we are pleased by the strong support for research in several areas of our emphasis in the health sciences, including children’s health, mental health, and addiction, and translational research and commercialization to advance human and animal health.”

Among the survey’s other findings:

  • Respondents believe that the state is “very much a leader” in the areas of defense (28%), agriculture (24%) and medical and health research (18%).
  • 64% strongly or somewhat agree that taxpayer funds should be invested to attract health startups
  • 70% say they strongly or somewhat agree that state money should be used to support scientific research at public universities.
  • 82% strongly or somewhat agree that the federal government should support basic research.
  • 75% said they believe they get some value or a great deal of value for the federal money spent on health and medical research. That came in higher than defense (67%), infrastructure (66%), Social Security (64%), public education (60%) or biotechnology (60%).
  • 59% say federal investment in mental health research has been inadequate.
  • 83% say it’s very or somewhat important to support increased funding for childhood disease research.

The survey of 1,003 Virginians was conducted in March and April. The results will be officially presented Wednesday afternoon at an event at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute in Roanoke.

The survey comes four months after plans were announced to build life sciences labs across the region, a need identified last year in a study funded by GO Virginia, a regional economic development initiative that also has named life sciences as a priority industry for the region that includes the Roanoke and New River valleys.

Project backers say the plan would create much-needed research space for startups and would contribute to an infrastructure that could attract larger technology companies.

The first phase of the project will create 2,500 square feet of flexible lab space at the Corporate Research Center and will pay for design work for a larger shared lab facility in Roanoke that could be 30,000 square feet or more.

The shared space in Blacksburg will be able to accommodate up to 25 tenants, project leaders have said. Johnson & Johnson Innovation’s JLABS initiative also will be a partner in the project.

The much larger Roanoke lab would support work already being done at Fralin, the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine and RAMP, a regional business accelerator. It would be located on Carilion Clinic-owned property “in close proximity” to those entities, according to a funding pitch to GO Virginia.

When the project was announced in December, it already had $1.1 million in funding, including $600,000 from GO Virginia and contributions from Montgomery County, Roanoke and the Corporate Research Center.

Supporters are counting on bigger money from Richmond. Both the House of Delegates and state Senate versions of the state budget earmark $15.7 million for the Roanoke portion of the project, but lawmakers have yet to agree on a final spending plan. The General Assembly is back for a one-day session on Wednesday, but a budget vote is not expected to be on the agenda.

Legislators must vote on a budget by the end of June.

Megan Schnabel

Megan Schnabel is a reporter for Cardinal News. Reach her at megan@cardinalnews.org.