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Opinion

  

The Podium

Bleak days for biomedical research

Boston Biomedical Research Institute recently closed its doors. The closing does not affect my future, because I retired two years ago — volunteering part-time since. My only job, these past several weeks, was to decide what to discard, give away, or take home. That may not seem too gigantic a task, but it meant going over papers and research materials collected over 43 years — I have been at BBRI since its founding in 1970 and a few years earlier when it was part of the Retina Foundation, now the Schepens Eye Research Institute in Boston. During our relocation to Watertown in 2000, little was discarded.

So, in contrast to most BBRI faculty, I am not moving to a new place — I am just ending a rewarding career at BBRI. The closing is much more of a shock for younger faculty, junior and senior alike. They must find and move to another place — with less space for most and all facing new problems to overcome. It is sad for me, however, because the closing of BBRI is like the loss of an old, dear friend. BBRI started as a small institute with a couple of independent departments headed by respective directors, who secured research funds and managed institute operations. With time though, BBRI evolved into a larger institute with many independent faculty members who obtained individual research grants. I watched and contributed to its corresponding evolution into governance based on faculty democracy.

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In 2000 we moved from Boston into a larger building in Watertown. The by-laws were changed to make governance more centralized. Over the next few years, the Institute’s faculty expanded greatly, which required a substantial draw on our small endowment. The expectation was that new faculty would obtain new National Institute of Health grants, thereby growing the investments made in them. Unfortunately, no one anticipated the ensuing downturn of the economy that precipitated a sharp reduction in the level of grants funded by the NIH, falling from around a 25 percent funding rate to 10 percent or less.

In its golden era, BBRI was a unique place to work. The individual faculty members were independent with designated labs, but they worked in an open physical environment that encouraged interaction. At BBRI, equipment and instruments were shared, even if purchased on a single investigator’s research grant. The responsible investigators maintained the instruments or care was shared, but they were made accessible to everyone. Multi-user equipment grants flourished. If one needed a given chemical, many offered to supply it, so that experiments were never delayed by such a need. Generous help was always given for learning a new technique or using an instrument.

BBRI pioneered the open-lab space design to encourage interaction and sharing that greatly enhance research efforts. Our approach to fostering scientific collaboration through lab design and operations has been adopted by many universities and companies.

BBRI may not be unique in its fate, if the drought in US research funding continues much longer. Whereas there were other factors in BBRI governance and leadership that played a role, it was the bleak days of scarce funding for biomedical research that sealed BBRI’s tragic fate. Even now, dire reductions in research funding due to the current sequester are weakening other essential research institutes.

President Obama’s warning that the sequester will damage “life saving medical research” is not an exaggeration. BBRI’s closing is the proof of it. The sequester is particularly damaging, when biomedical research agencies like the NIH are already floundering to maintain effort in many areas of crucial health-related research. Those of us who conduct research that is vital to innovation in medical care hope that the closing of BBRI is not the first of increasing institute collapses that will undermine the future health of the country.

Sherwin S. Lehrer was a senior scientist at the Boston Biomedical Research Institute.

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