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February 27, 2024

A Sign of the Times

A New York Times headline from earlier this week: “The Billionaires Spending a Fortune to Lure Scientists Away From Universities.”

We’ve already seen quite a few similar organizations pop up in the past couple of years — Arc Institute, Arcadia Science, and others catalogued by Sam Arbesman.

The article announced yet another a new organization called Arena Bioworks, formed by Michael Dell and a number of other wealthy individuals by poaching top university scientists and giving them some $500 million of funding. The inspiration: Bell Labs.

A few bits of interests:

  1. The epiphany experienced by one philanthropist when he noticed that his large donations did get his name on various buildings, but as for anything else . . . ?Mr. Pagliuca had donated hundreds of millions of dollars to his alma maters, Duke University and Harvard, largely earmarked for science. That earned him seats on four advisory boards at the institutions, but it began to dawn on him that he didn’t have any concrete idea what all that money had produced, save for his name on a few plaques outside various university buildings.
  2. The rationale for the new company: Traditional academic research is too slow, and too modest and incremental given the need to appeal to peer reviewers and funders:The problem, scientists and researchers say, is that there can be yearslong waits for university institutional approvals to move forward with promising research. The process, aimed at sifting out unrealistic proposals and protecting safety, can involve writing long essays that can consume more than half of some scientists’ time. When funding does come through, the initial research idea is often already stale, setting off a new cycle of grant applications for projects sure to be outdated in their own time.Stuart Schreiber, a longtime Harvard-affiliated researcher who quit to be Arena’s lead scientist, said his more out-there ideas rarely received backing. “It got to the point where I realized the only way to get funding was to apply to study something that had already been done,” Dr. Schreiber said.
  3. Also worth noting (I haven’t seen this kind of thing in print before): The retaliatory attitude of universities.An air of calculated secrecy has swirled around Arena’s operations. Dr. Joung, who resigned from Mass General last year, said that he did not tell former colleagues where he was going, and that several had asked if he was terminally ill. Dr. Cahill said several scientists he hired had their university email access swiftly disabled and received stiff legal threats of retribution if they tried to recruit former colleagues — a common phenomenon in the business world that counts as brass knuckles in academia.

It seems to me that both universities and NIH have a mutual interest in trying to institute substantial reforms such that 1) scientists can get innovative ideas funded much more easily, and 2) philanthropists feel like they’re getting more for their dollars than a building’s name.