A national group that promotes biosciences has honored state Rep. Kenny Wilk for his work advancing the burgeoning industry.
The Washington-based Biotechnology Industry Organization announced Wednesday that Wilk, a Lansing Republican, is its 2005 State Representative of the Year.
Wilk, along with state Sen. Nick Jordan, R-Olathe, put together the Kansas Economic Growth Act, which was approved last year by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Kathleen Sebelius.
The legislation, which won bipartisan support, promises an estimated $500 million investment over a 10-year period to help Kansas in the biosciences industry.
"It was agreed that the significant size and scope of the bill and the continuing role and involvement of Rep. Wilk has had in trying to build and grow the bioscience industry in Kansas made him worthy of recognition," said Patrick Kelly, vice president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization.
Wilk, who has represented the 42nd District in the Kansas House since 1993, said he was honored by the recognition but said he was only one of many people working to advance biosciences in Kansas.
"I can't spread around enough credit," Wilk said. "I'm humbled by this recognition, but I want to be clear: There's just a long list of folks who deserve recognition and appreciation. There's a lot of folks who rallied behind this. It's much bigger than any one individual."
Kansas House Speaker Doug Mays, R-Topeka, said Wilk and Jordan "brought the bioscience initiative to the attention of the Legislature." He also credited their foresight for the program's success.
"The people of Kansas owe Kenny Wilk a debt of gratitude," Mays said.
Clay Blair, former chairman of the Kansas Board of Regents, has worked extensively with Wilk on biosciences and higher education.
"He's an unsung hero on economic development issues," Blair said of Wilk. "He has been a tireless advocate for economic development and higher education."
Wilk said his longtime interest in economic development was the genesis for the act. His first assignment in the Legislature was to a committee that studied how Kansas could reap more federal research dollars.
"It was at that point that I got introduced to research," Wilk said. "I've just always believed that research, when done with the objective in mind of growing your economy, is one of the better ways of economic development."
He said he came to believe there was a better way to develop the Kansas economy than a model that in essence pitted cities against cities and states against states in bidding wars for jobs.
"Rob thy neighbor has been the economic development strategy of most states, most communities for the last 25 years," Wilk said. "It's really not a very successful strategy."
Wilk said several factors were in alignment for Kansas to focus on the bioscience industry:
l More than half of the money the U.S. government is spending on research is going into areas that can be classified as biosciences.
l The Federal Reserve has said it expected within the next 15 years for the bioscience industry to make up 15 percent to 17 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product -- on par with health care's portion of the GDP today.
l The Stowers Institute in Kansas City, Mo., is investing hundreds of millions of dollars in the region for biomedical research.
l The state's major universities are on the forefront of research in the life sciences, food safety and food security.
Bioscience next major wave
He said it was his belief that biosciences are to the economy today what computer and information technology was several decades ago.
"If you take a minute and think about the structural change that information technology has brought on our social fabric and our economic structure, it's profound. It's touched nearly every aspect of our economy," he said. "I believe that the next great economic wave, not just in the United States, but the global unit, is biosciences. It is going to fundamentally and structurally impact our economy."
The industry is so broad, Wilk said, but few people understand what it is.
"The way I simply explain it is healthier, better food for humans and animals, better health care for humans and animals, a cleaner, safer environment, and a better quality of life for one and all," he said.
Wilk said he has continued to meet with leaders and researchers working on bioscience-related projects in both the private and public sectors, to see that the Kansas Economic Growth Act was successful in its goals.
"Both Senator Jordan and I made it clear to our colleagues ... if this passed this is not legislation that we're just going to say, 'OK, our job is done. Good luck. Go make it happen.' We pledged to stay involved. We are and we will continue to in the future," Wilk said.
The Biotechnology Industry Organization and Wilk are trying to work out arrangements for presentation of the award, a crystal globe on a crystal plaque inscribed with Wilk's name.
Veteran House member
Like many politicians, Wilk's ride has been like a roller coaster.
Elected to the House in 1992, he rose to be chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee in 2001.
In 2002, despite a record-breaking free fall in state revenues, Wilk took a leadership role in pushing through a $120 million bond program to build research facilities at Kansas University, Kansas State and Wichita State.
With that accomplishment behind him, Wilk ran to be speaker of the House in late 2002 . But he split the moderate Republican vote with another candidate, which allowed Mays, a conservative Republican, to win the contest. After Mays' victory, Wilk lost his chairmanship of the Appropriations Committee, but he later was appointed chairman of the House Economic Development Committee.