“The success and impact of independent research institutes has been huge, much larger than could be predicted based on size, and reflects the creative environment that they provide,” says Greg Patterson, the VP for Research Operations at Texas Biomedical Research Institute and incoming president of AIRI. His own institution can claim a number of important discoveries and projects, including testing and validation of the hepatitis B vaccine and strong progress toward a hep-C vaccine, as well as the identification of genes responsible for cholesterol regulation. Keinath’s Wistar Institute has also done some pioneering vaccine research, as well as developed methods for identifying cancer types based on gene expression. Research at the MBL has played a critical role in understanding cell cycles and cell division, as well as neuronal signaling and how chemical information moves along nerve cells (thanks in particular to those squid giant cells).
Patterson says independent institutes receive about 10 percent of all NIH grant funds each year, and can claim a number of Nobel Prize winners among their faculty. But with NIH funding dropping and few alternate sources of income—remember that tuition, massive endowments and other bank account stuffers support the Harvard Medical Schools of the world—virtually all independent institutes are in some kind of budgetary trouble. “More institutes, unfortunately, are likely to reach an untenable financial state,” Patterson says. Clearly, plenty of similar research goes on at the biggest university institutions, but concerning budget struggles, independent institutes represent a front line in the funding battle. They are a bellwether, and their struggles provide an indicator that less science is getting done when the money stops flowing.
Merge, shut down or generate other income?
So far, it’s not just the MBL that has taken evasive action. The Boston Biomedical Research Institute closed its doors entirely last year, sending 16 faculty off to find other positions; the BBRI received $9.3 million in NIH funding in 2010, then saw that drop to $6 million only a year later. Others have taken the MBL route of latching on to a larger university: Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia, for example, is now officially part of Temple University after an $83.8 million sale.
But such agreements have drawbacks. “It is a challenge to merge the independent research institute with a university system in a way that preserves a creative atmosphere,” Patterson says, adding that his employer, Texas Biomedical Research Institute, “has not been immune from the challenges created by low funding rates and sequestration.” Texas Biomed has resorted to staff layoffs in recent years, and is working to create private industry partnerships that would lessen the reliance on NIH funding. Keinath says the Wistar Institute is a bit safer thanks to a robust technology transfer program that brings in royalties from some of those discoveries made there in the past. A few other institutes have other methods of survival: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York has an educational program that provides revenue, whereas Jackson Laboratories in Maine supports research efforts with help from a large business selling strains of mice to other scientists. But many AIRI members do research and little else, so NIH represents the sole golden goose around.