Op-Ed: Southern Research building castle for 21st century, investing in future of Birmingham

Op-Ed: Southern Research building castle for 21st century, investing in future of Birmingham

By Josh Carpenter, Ph.D.

The coronavirus pandemic revealed healthcare heroes in our midst. I am proud to work with many of them at Southern Research. Since the pandemic began, our scientists – who have been studying viruses like COVID-19 for many years – have worked nonstop to combat the virus.

Scientists at Southern Research have made substantial contributions in every realm of coronavirus response, from prevention, to testing, to treatment. In partnership with UAB, we helped refine Remdesivir, the first treatment approved for the virus. Collaborating with Tonix Pharmaceuticals, we helped develop a potential vaccine that is in clinical trials. These are just two of many projects that underscore our critical role during this public health crisis.

We now have an opportunity to expand this important part of our mission, both to embolden our work to combat COVID-19 and to prepare for the next threat that might endanger our communities, families and friends.

We are building a Center for Pandemic Resilience. The new facility will double our lab space to study infectious diseases like COVID-19 and enhance our capacity to address common diseases that have made the coronavirus outbreak particularly lethal to Alabamians. When completed in 2023, the new facility will support a growing biotech corridor that is already the lifeblood of Alabama’s economy.

Southern Research currently employs almost 400 scientists and professional staff, and generates $150 million in annual economic impact. Our new facility will create 125 new jobs at SR, indirectly support an additional 400 new jobs and double our economic impact to $300 million a year.

We are asking the state of Alabama to support this important project with $45 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds. At less than 2% of the state’s ARPA allotment, there is no more appropriate or impactful way for Alabama to use this one-time federal money.

ARPA outlines several key objectives, all of which align with our plans: Investing in pandemic testing and treatments. Preparing for future threats. Spurring economic growth.

Southern Research is uniquely qualified to meet ARPA objectives, as we:

  • Are the only scientific agency in Alabama whose employees directly contributed to treatment, testing and vaccine development for COVID-19.
  • Receive more National Institutes of Health funding than any other non-academic research center in Alabama.
  • Operate the state’s only High-Throughput Screening Center, which allows us to rapidly test new compounds to treat diseases and variants.
  • Are the state’s only non-profit research center that is entirely self-sustaining through industry contracts, grants and intellectual property revenue.

Throughout our 80-year history as one of Alabama’s largest non-profits, we have never asked the state to invest in our campus. This time is different. ARPA funds support projects that help communities respond to the pandemic and rebuild for the future. Our plan does both: It delivers a national center of excellence in fighting disease, while growing Alabama jobs.

As we emerge from one of our nation’s most challenging periods, Alabama has received a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build a better future. By investing in Southern Research, our leaders can drive innovation and economic development in our state — and benefit Alabamians for generations to come.

Josh Carpenter, Ph.D., is president and CEO of Southern Research, an independent, nonprofit scientific research organization founded in 1941 and employing 400 full-time employees working in three divisions: Life Sciences, Engineering, and Energy & Environment.