Washington boosters, take note!

In an era awash with studies showing this area to be at or near the top of lists where people would like to live and work, an major research firm here has found the high cost of living - particularly for housing a detriment in seeking top scientific talent.

Dr. Ernest L. Park Jr., president of Whittaker Corp.'s Microbiological Associates in Bethesda, says, "A large number of people don't want to live here ... even though salaries are higher, the difference doesn't compensate for the high cost of living."

On a number of occasions, Microbiological has brought potential professionals and their spouses here for job interviews. "They look at houses and take the first plane back," he adds.

Park, a physician and former president of a medical instrument firm in Paris, also notes that of the people his company does hire, "more and more" of them are accepting long commuting distances in order to find houses they can afford in Frederick County, near Baltimore and beyond Columbia.

Despite such difficulties, metropolitan Washington today is an engineering and scientific research center of growing importance. Several dozen large companies are based here, concentrated in Montgomery County and Northern Virginia, Many other ventures, some little more than a basement laboratory, are grouped around the Beltway.

"In terms of people, it's a highly competitive area to employ good scientists. There obviously are a lot of top-flight people in the area and a good deal of research," according to Park.

A major factor is the federal governement and the need for many types of research activities to be conducted within a short distance of officials at the National Institutes of Health or Health, Education and Welfare officials, who are required to monitor contract work.

Microbiological Associates is typical of this growing business. Founded in 1951, the firm employs 500 people in research and production facilities on River Road, in Walkersvill near Frederick) and La Jolla, Calif.

After an initial period when most business came from government research contracts, Microbiological moved into manufacturing biomedical products in the late 1960s. Product sales now account for 60 percent of annual revenues.

The company operates one of the world's most complete facilities for detecting cancer-causing substances and was the first to develop tissue-culture products used in cancer research. It has contracts with NIH, the Environmental Protection Agency, other U.S. agencies and private industry. A primary role is testing substances in food additives, pesticides, drugs, chemicals and cosmetics.

"The most exciting thing" on the horizon, Park says, is his firms development of clinical diagnostic products to evaluate blood samples. Some of these products are awaiting approval by the Food and Drug Administration and may go on the market later this year, leading to lower costs for some laboratory tests for measles and birth defects.

Park, a native of South Carolina who studied medicine in Birmingham, practiced in Atlanta before deciding to "expand his horizons" through graduate business studies and management work. He says that unlike some of the people he seeks to hire, "I'm four-plus on the Washington area."