A REPORT ISSUED earlier this year concluded that the $180 million our state has invested since 2006 in the endowed chairs program had generated $246 million in non-state funds, primarily from the private sector and federal grants. That's a pretty good return on investment even before you consider what that money has produced - and what it promises to produce in years to come: It already has created jobs for 2,000 people, among them 22 of the nation's top academics, lured to South Carolina to produce cutting-edge research that can be spun off into business ventures and drive the growth of an information economy in our state.
But if we look only at the dollar returns - or even at the job returns - we miss the full value of the program, which holds great potential to help people far beyond those who will work in a vibrant information sector. Most promising in this regard is what it can do to improve the health of average South Carolinians, who have some of the worst outcomes in the nation.
Last week, the University of South Carolina announced that professors who were hired through the program there and at the Medical University of South Carolina had been awarded a $4.8 million federal grant (money not included in that earlier calculation) to create a "medical lifeline" to make it easier for people with cancer and other illnesses to locate and participate in the clinical trials that might save their lives.
Savvy patients already find these trials, although it requires a lot of energy and persistence that they could better be using elsewhere, but many people who could benefit personally while also contributing to research that might help countless others never even know about them. The grant will pay to build out the infrastructure for the Research Permissions Management System, which will allow patients to sign up for clinical trials and be informed when additional trials are launched while, the university said, allowing researchers to "manage legal, ethical, social and bioinformatics requirements."
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This is just the latest instance in which the endowed chairs program has the potential to improve lives. In fact, an initiative announced just last month has even greater potential to help lift South Carolina from our bottom-dragging status in terms of our health. The endowed chairs board approved a proposal by USC and MUSC to tackle diabetes, stroke, heart disease and cancer by nudging people to exercise more and eat better.
Unlike improving disease treatment and finding cures, which requires those clinical trials, we generally know what people need to do to prevent or at least control chronic diseases; we just don't know how to motivate them to do it. That's what the new Technology Center to Enhance Healthful Lifestyles aims to do, through such efforts as web-based coaching programs. To the extent that this project succeeds, South Carolinians likely will be the first beneficiaries, since we likely will be the guinea pigs.
And to bring things full circle, with many experts convinced that we never will be able to control our nation's spiraling medical costs until we become less fat and more fit, if this initiative shows any promise at all, you can be sure it will attract outside funding, which will generate even more good jobs in our state.