August marked the end of an era for several of the country’s top academic core laboratories. After an 18-month funding phase-out, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute stopped paying for core lab employees at about a dozen facilities around the country, including Harvard Medical School and UT Southwestern.
HHMI VP and CSO David Clayton says the institute, which has more than $10 billion in net assets, had long been providing support to “facilities that grew up during the era when everyone’s endowment was nothing but up, when it was much easier to meet every sort of legitimate demand that came in for provisions of services for science.”
Those days, it seems, are over. In spring 2001, the HHMI leadership began re-evaluating its spending. Says Clayton, “We looked at how well we were accomplishing our goal of providing a high-quality service that was timely and cost effective as balanced against other needs investigators have to do their research.”
Clayton says the institute concluded that almost all of the core lab activities that were being routinely supported were readily available as an outsourced service. “There’s been, in my lifetime, a huge increase in the breadth, diversity, and quantity of private firms from which you can derive services,” Clayton says. “They can move much more quickly adopting new technologies than what you usually find in the academic setting.”
HHMI will continue to support the acquisition of lab services by its investigators, and, Clayton says, “on occasion to partner with [them by] providing resources, but we don’t have them as employee centers any longer.”
As for the labs that lost funding, Clayton says some have been shut down, and others were folded into other core labs hosted by universities. (Clayton could not say exactly how many labs or how many of HHMI’s nearly 3,000 medical research personnel were affected by the cuts, or how much money HHMI will save by implementing them.)
Asked to respond to speculation by some former HHMI core lab staff that funds were diverted to the new Janelia Farm project, Clayton says, “Not true.” Janelia is currently bond financed and “has nothing to do with my operating budget,” he says. “This was a management decision on how resources are best used. I would have made this decision even if our budget [was growing].”
— Markers by Adrienne Burke