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Coons: Return of earmarks could yield Delaware win

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U.S. Sen. Chris Coons told state business leaders Tuesday that a return of earmarks could yield further investment in Delaware projects. | PHOTO COURESY OF COONS OFFICE

WILMINGTON – With Congressional Democrats reportedly preparing to overturn a more than decade-long ban on federal earmarks, U.S. Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) told state biotech leaders that he anticipated lobbying for more investment in Delaware’s growing biotech sector.

“What is not yet being publicly trumpeted is the near certainty that earmarks are returning this year after a decade,” the senator said during the Delaware Bioscience Association’s monthly breakfast session Feb. 16. “I am cautiously optimistic that we will see an increase in investment, not just in R&D, but more broadly.”

Earmarks, or discretionary spending on projects outside of competitively-bid processes, have been banned under House of Representatives rules since 2011, but after Democrats won a majority in both houses of Congress as well as the White House, legislators are eyeing a return of the spending. Punchbowl News first reported Feb. 15 that Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), the new chair of the House Appropriations Committee, which would handle such projects, will announce a return of earmarks in coming weeks.

Congress reined in the spending following some high-profile misuse cases, including lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s bribery case and the much-maligned, $223 million Alaskan “Bridge to Nowhere” project that was ultimately scuttled. Former President Barack Obama publicly opposed any earmarked spending, while former President Donald Trump called for its return. So far, President Joe Biden has yet to voice his opinion on the spending, although as a longtime senator he was used to the horse-trading behind such projects.

According to Coons, if earmarks are returned, they will be limited to transparent, publicly vetted investments. Punchbowl reported that for-profit companies would continue to be prohibited, but nonprofits and localities would be eligible under the framework being discussed.

Coon expects to lean on the connections to the Biden administration as well as ties that he, Sen. Tom Carper and Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester have developed with the incoming administration chiefs to try to push up the First State’s profile for investment.

“When federal money sort of floods into the R&D space, it tends to go to a few places around the country that have terrific existing, world-class research institutions and communities, and very strong federal delegations,” Coons said, noting the Boston, North Carolina and Silicon Valley areas in particular. “This may be our best chance in our lifetimes for Delaware to get up on that platform and to get our foothold in there. So, I intend to work very hard on it.”

NIIMBL, located at the University of Delaware’s STAR campus, could benefit additional federal funding under the Biden administration. | DBT FILE PHOTO

Even under traditional federal grant programs, Coons said that he would be working to progress investment in Delaware through program’s like the Small Business Administration’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs, the National Institutes of Health’s Institutional Development Award (IDeA) program, and the National Science Foundation’s Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR).

“There’s a range of ways that we can and should increase federal research dollars going into the University of Delaware, Delaware State University, private-sector research partnerships, public-private partnerships, etc.,” he said. 

Coons noted that he has spoken with Biden’s nominee for Commerce Secretary, Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo, about the value of the one of her future department’s charges, the National Institute for Science and Technology (NIST), which is the parent entity of the University of Delaware’s National Institute for Innovation in Manufacturing Biopharmaceuticals (NIIMBL).

NIIMBL is a public-private partnership tasked with accelerating biopharmaceutical innovation, supporting more efficient manufacturing, and educating a workforce. It convenes stakeholders to talk about issues, identify problems, and deploy grants to help solve them. It also has its own group of researchers who work on projects.

“I am quite hopeful there will be another round of investment in NIIMBL’s facilities in order to strengthen its ability to reduce the timeline for the development of therapeutics and vaccines in the face of the next pandemic,” Coons said. “We have created a lot of terrific, high-income, high-skilled jobs in the Philadelphia area, and with NIIMBL anchoring the southwestern corner of this region, I’m really hopeful that we’re going to see a dramatic growth in that employment here in the Delaware area.”

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