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CSHL Decries Prospect of Federal Spending Cuts; Plans to Pursue NY Funds for Alliance

By Alex Philippidis

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) — In the face of expected spending cuts by the federal and New York state governments, the president of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory told GenomeWeb Daily News his institution will ramp up efforts aimed at legislators in the coming year to keep research funds flowing.

Bruce Stillman expressed concerns that the laboratory will see reduced federal research funding as the newly-elected Republican majority in the House of Representatives — which includes supporters of the fiscally conservative Tea Party movement — moves to fulfill promises to reverse the rise in federal spending the past two years under President Obama and Democratic majorities in the House and US Senate.

That increase in part has benefitted CSHL and other academic and nonprofit institutions, through increases in funding for research and new facilities through programs like the two-year $814 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the economic stimulus measure set to end in 2011.

"For this country to be cutting back research when countries like China and other emerging countries are investing huge amounts of money in research would be a major mistake. I think a lot of people realize that," including Obama and his administration, Stillman said.

"What is of concern is that there are people who have no interest in research at all, who are now being elected to Congress, and these are the people that are basically anti-government as a matter of philosophy," said Stillman, declining to single out any specific lawmaker. While some such candidates failed to get elected, "the ones that did get elected, I'm not convinced that research is going to be anywhere on their radar screen."

Also of concern is the departure from the House and Senate of advocates of greater research spending, notably outgoing Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.).

"I think there's going to be a need to educate a new generation of people in the House and the senate who will stand up and say, 'Look, you know, this country is going to survive on its economic strength.' The military strength I think comes from economic strength, and research is a driver of that. The universities and the research institutes, they are where the economic benefits come from," Stillman said.

As corporate giants cut back on their own basic research efforts, Stillman added, "Unless we keep the sciences very strong in the academic environment here, and unless there is some consolidation of the industry like in Sematech [the nonprofit basic research consortium focused on semiconductor manufacturing], we're going to be in real trouble. So I think the government is the name of the game for research."

Absent any solution, "I'm concerned that the United States may really become as it has in education, not one of the top centers in the world," he said. "Once you lose that top position, it's extraordinarily hard to get back up. The other countries have a momentum."

CSHL will try to maintain momentum, he said, in part by working with local lawmakers who support the scientific research community, as well as groups committed to stopping research spending cuts, including Research!America, the Association of Independent Research Institutions in order to generate more national dialogue on the need for research funding.

"If that doesn't happen in this country, in 10 years, I think we'll be on the road to not being the leading research country in the world," Stillman said.

He contrasted the prospect of US research cuts with the UK, where the seven-month-old coalition government led by Prime Minister David Cameron, a Conservative, has vowed to maintain spending on research projects, including a £220 million ($345.4 million) subsidy toward the UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation planned for London's Borough of Camden, even as spending on basic research is frozen over the next four years, at around £4.6 billion per year through 2015.

For 2011, CSHL will generate a projected $132 million in revnue, up from $127 million this year, Chief Operating Officer Dillaway Ayres Jr., told GWDN.

CSHL's finances this year were, Ayres said, by a 7.5 percent increase in its endowment, which at the end of November had a market value of "around $270 million."

"We're continuing to rebuild," Ayres said. "We still have a ways to go to get back to where we were, but we're making progress."

Stillman added, "Our endowment really needs to be at least double and probably triple to make me feel more comfortable about running an institution like this. And the reason is I'm just not convinced there's going to be any increase in federal support."

The laboratory's Board of Trustees has begun discussing how the endowment can be multiplied. One answer could come, Stillman said, if a donor emerges with the $100 million-range gift sought by CSHL to name its Cancer Center.

CSHL has launched a Cancer Therapeutics Initiative to raise funds toward cancer-focused research infrastructure, as well as boost the endowment to sustain operations in development of cancer therapies. The cancer effort uses patient samples and the scanning of entire genomes to create mouse models of cancers incurable with current treatment, then uses RNAi screening and other technologies to discover and validate new targets for prospective therapies.

The effort is expected to announce "probably in another month a major discovery in cancer, a complete reversal of a cancer that is incurable," Stillman said.

Another major research area CSHL will focus on in the new year, he said, is understanding the genetics of cognitive disease, such as autism, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorders. "We're having discussions with various groups about expanding the amounts of genetics that goes on," he said.

Tools being developed at CSHL and elsewhere can are being applied in neuroscience, and "there are some other important tools being developed elsewhere – optogenetics, high-resolution imaging. And those, when integrated into the genomic stuff that has been done here, will be very, very powerful," he added.

Boosting the endowment is especially important given uncertainty over the future of federal research funding as well as reduced funding from corporate sponsors toward supporting meetings and courses, due to mergers and acquisitions of life sciences corporate giants. Funding from the corporate support program has dipped to close to $400,000 this year, from from about $1 million in 2002, Ayres said.

This year's increase continues progress made last year, when the endowment climbed 20 percent, to about $250 million, after investment losses blamed on the recession caused the fund to fall 24 percent.

The 2008 loss prompted CSHL to change its formula for drawing on the endowment fund last year. Instead of budgeting a percentage of the average market value of the endowment funds calculated over the most recent 12 calendar quarters, the laboratory drew down 5 percent of the 2009 endowment, rather than 5 percent of the 12-quarter average market value.

"I think that's done two things: One, is that I think it has helped us focus on cutting back expenses at the right time. We don't want to be spending more than the income. I think that's been fairly prudent and it has helped us really focus on cutting back on expenses as much as we can, while at the same time trying to move forward," Stillman said.

CSHL drew down about $12 million from its endowment this year, compared with almost $15 million in pre-recession 2007.

Stillman said CSHL will continue to seek $30 million in annual operating funds from cash-strapped New York state toward a research alliance with Stony Brook (NY) University and Brookhaven National Laboratory. The alliance, first disclosed in 2009, is intended to build upon years of close ties between the institutions and grow the life science industry on Long Island.

He said CSHL and Brookhaven researchers have launched a collaboration in biofuels, while CSHL has had talks about possible collaborations with departments of the university that have not traditionally engaged with the laboratory, such as computer science, applied mathematics, and Stony Brook's School of Engineering, "simply because we don't have those types of people at Cold Spring Harbor, and Stony Brook is very strong in those areas."

Stillman said he has maintained dialogue with Samuel Stanley, an MD with an interest in infectious diseases, in the year since his inauguration as Stony Brook University president. Stanley has appointed Kenneth Kaushansky as dean of the School of Medicine, and the school is expected to announce new initiatives that could involve CSHL. More broadly, the goal is to generate technologies around which spinout companies can be based.

"I could go to my faculty and say, 'Why don't you interact with people at Brookhaven.' But they're going to say, 'Okay, well give me some startup money and I’ll do it.' That's the moneys that we need," Stillman said. "What we need are moneys that are essentially designated for an interdisciplinary research alliance to promote not only new research ideas, but economic development."

Chasing funding from the Empire State may be easier said than done. Incoming Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who takes office at the start of the new year, and state lawmakers will have to plug a widening fiscal deficit to balance the budget for the next fiscal year beginning April 1. Lawmakers left Albany late last month without doing anything to plug the gap, which now stands at $315 million but has been projected by state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli to rise to $10 billion.

Stillman targeted other efforts in the coming year, such as holding additional Asian meetings and courses in China, where CSHL in April opened the Suzhou Dushu Lake Conference Center in Suzhou. Meetings would include topics of interest to Asian researchers such as crop genetics and transgenic crops.

Stillman also said that he was pleased with the more than $3 million raised through this year's Double Helix Medals dinner, held Nov. 9 in New York City. "I think that's about the amount of money we'll be raising each year." The proceeds for CSHL's top fundraising event, in its fifth year, exceeded the almost $3 million collected last year, but remain below the $3.6 million racked up in 2008, when honorees included Craig Venter and James Watson.

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