Research of the future

UW quad by nordique
The independent research institute will drive biomedical innovation:
[Via business|bytes|genes|molecules]

The Broad Institute just got a donation of $400 million from Eli and Edyth Broad. The donation is the formal start of an endowment, making the Broad Institute a permanent, standalone biomedical institution.

I have bemoaned the death of such bastions of innovation like Bell Labs in the past. But there is a trend in the biomedical sciences that is encouraging. Non-profit institutes and research centers like the Broad, The Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, Janelia Farms, The Institute for Systems Biology, etc, with funding from powerhouse funders like the Wellcome Trust and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are leading a trend towards independent research centers. Given the requirements for focussed cross-disciplinary research, I have a strong feeling that many of the innovations of the next quarter century are going to come from such institutions, funded by non-profits, private enterprises, and non-profit arms of companies like Google.

There will always be place for such federally funded institutes, especially those that fit the model of the ones described above, e.g. the Joint Bioenergy Institute. I wonder, in this changing environment, what the role of the traditional research university will be? In the life sciences, I see a continuum of research and collaboration, between universities, well-funding research institutes, and private enterprise. If we can harness the best of all three arms of research, I think we will be successful at innovation and not get in the kinds of rut we often do today, with too much overlap, little focus, and attempts at trying to leverage a somewhat broken federal funding system.

Is this a growing trend? Are we at risk of diluting the research pool by having too many institutes? We’ll just have to wait and see, but I am quite optimistic.

I think Deepak has hit on a very important trend. Independent, non-profit research centers are a real hotbed now, not only because of the large amount of money from large funders. There is also a lot of Federal money heading towards them.

Many large research universities do not handle collaboration well. It is just the what they are put together. Too often it is viewed as a zero-sum game, where helping other departments succeed is not viewed as helpful to your own.

Many corporations do not do research very well also, especially collaborations with other institutions. The focus on near-term profits prevents them from effectively dealing with really complex biological problems.

But non-profits fit right in the sweet spot. They HAVE to solve difficult problems, with deadlines much like small startups but with the freedom of endeavor and choice of research direction seen in universities. Since few are big enough to do everything themselves, collaboration is really required. This drives them to find the best solution to solve their problem, even if that requires collaboration.

Also, I think that this approach will draw many of the high powered researchers to the non-profit organization. At these non-profits, they can spend all their time dealing with research, and a much lower amount of their grants goes to overhead (up to 65% of each grant goes to such overhead at a university). This means that more money can actually be spent on research.

So, more money for research and less time devoted to other things means that more researchers may move to these non-profit research institutions, making them even more powerful.

It could well be that many universities simply return to undergraduate education and that large-scale research will move to these independent non-profit research institutes. What do you think?

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