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 / Winter 2003 / Issue 33(originally published by Booz & Company)


The New Architecture of Biomedical Research

These developments would be tragic, for medicine and humankind, were it not for the thousands of research scientists plugging away in their labs in academia — and independent institutes like the Salk.

Independent Virtues
In many ways, there is little difference between a lab at Stanford and a lab at the Salk Institute. But the independent research institutes have some attributes that make them particularly apt partners for the biopharmaceutical industry. Basic research thrives at these institutions, at least in part because they do not answer to shareholders or university regents, who often have multiple agendas (providing undergraduate education, creating jobs, and pleasing political constituencies) that have little to do with innovation.

More fundamentally, the independent labs offer an inviting environment for the best and brightest scientific minds. These are collegial places, typically home to one or more “stars” of the biology world, like James Watson and Francis Crick, co-discoverers of the structure of DNA, who reside at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and the Salk, respectively. These institutions provide an open campus, where professors and post-doctoral students alike share cafeteria tables with Nobel Prize winners. There is minimal bureaucracy, so decisions can be made fast. There is an open exchange with other labs, universities, and the corporate world. Scientists are not required to teach, and they have the freedom and time to focus on the work that interests them most. Without the administrative duties, undergraduates to teach, and campus politics typically found in university settings, scientists spend nearly all their time doing science.

“Our people devote 100 percent of their time to problem- and curiosity-driven research,” says Richard Murphy, president and CEO of the Salk. “We don’t teach very much; they don’t have a lot of administration to do. We have an environment where faculty members and their students spend all of their time doing research, which means it’s very efficient.”

The Salk Institute for Biological Studies was established in 1962 by Jonas Salk, the developer of the polio vaccine. Given the fear engendered by polio in the first half of the 20th century, Jonas Salk’s creation of the first effective vaccine made him an international hero. He never patented the vaccine, nor did he earn any money from his discovery, preferring to see it distributed as widely as possible. But he dreamed of creating an independent research center where a community of scholars interested in different aspects of biology — the study of life — could come together to follow their curiosity.

For more than a year, Dr. Salk toured the country in search of the right location for his research center. Finally, wooed by San Diego Mayor Charles Dail, who had had polio, he was drawn to 27 acres on a mesa in La Jolla, just west of the proposed site for the new University of California campus then planned for San Diego. With a gift of the land from the citizens of San Diego and with initial financial support from the March of Dimes Birth Defects Foundation, Jonas Salk, who died at age 80 in 1995, was able to build the institute.

In Jonas Salk’s original vision, biologists, sociologists, artists, and other luminaries would work together in a collaborative environment to explore questions about the basic principles of life and consider the wider implications of their discoveries for the future of humanity. Working closely with architect Louis Kahn, he summarized his aesthetic objectives by telling the architect to “create a facility worthy of a visit by Picasso.”

The artists and philosophers have long gone elsewhere, a part of the original vision that did not survive. But the stark concrete edifice at the edge of the sea still provides a striking home to a small cadre of brilliant scientists. The Salk Institute is renowned for its work in three areas: molecular biology and genetics, the neurosciences, and plant biology. The institute has 56 faculty and about 250 post-doctoral students, and although it offers no degree programs of its own, the Salk also hosts 100 graduate students from the nearby University of California at San Diego.

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  1. Lawrence M. Fisher, “How Strategic Alliances Work in Biotech,” s+b, First Quarter 1996; Click here.
  2. Lawrence M. Fisher, “Post-Merger Integration: How Novartis Became No. 1,” s+b, Second Quarter 1998; Click here.
  3. Lawrence M. Fisher, “The Rocky Road from Startup to Big-Time Player: Biogen’s Triumph Against the Odds,” s+b, Third Quarter 1997; Click here.
  4. Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory:
  5. The Salk Institute for Biological Studies:
  6. Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research:
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