Saturday, January 10, 2009

Fundamental Research: Progress & Renewal

About a century ago, a group of German academic luminaries led by the theologian Adolf von Harnack approached Kaiser Wilhelm II with a bold idea. In the preceding century, the era of the founders had brought unprecedented economic growth to the country through a seemingly never ending chain of technological innovations and breath-taking industrialization. Progress in biomedical research had resulted in improvements in public health that extended life expectancy by 20 years. The first laws instituting health care and pension plans for the public had been passed and German citizens had come to enjoy the benefits of a welfare state.

However, the learned gentlemen felt that despite this progress, there was no time for complacency. Germany was about to lose her competitive edge in fundamental research. The country would fall behind the other great European powers, if she could not maintain the creativity necessary to meet the challenges of the new century. The state-funded universities as the only sites for fundamental research were not equipped to support the ever-rising costs of ever-more complex scientific research. Germany desperately needed a new organization that had sufficient resources in order to plunge ahead successfully. Local governments would be able to provide some support for infrastructure, but the national government needed to finance the costs of research and salaries for the investigators. It was only natural that the scientists turned to the Emperor for help. He was the nation's greatest philanthropist with a penchant for science and technology.

Regardless of his love of innovation, the Prussian Wilhelm II ran an utmost exacting government. The scientists understood that they needed a solid proposal to put forth to his Majesty, if they wanted to be successful.  In order to develop a promising model for the venture, they sent a delegation to New York City to visit the newly founded Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research and learn how an organization purely dedicated to research was run. The Germans must have found good advice, because the Emperor was impressed with their proposal. In 1911, he enthusiastically agreed to found the Kaiser Wilhelm Society for the Advancement of Science. The Rockefeller Foundation contributed a part of the outside funding.

The former Institute for Biophysics, a hotel in 2012.
The Kaiser Wilhelm Institute that I learned to know as a student was the Institute for Biophysics in Frankfurt am Main. This institute was created in the 1930s from a predecessor founded in the early 1920s as the Institute for Physics in Medicine (free translation). Some research facilities, the obligatory bust of Max Planck greeting the visitor, a library, and a small auditorium were housed in a majestic villa with Romanesques arches near Johann Wolfgang Goethe University's medical school on the other side of the river (Kennedy Allee). A pictures of the building's interior is shown on page 4 of the 2003 Institute Guide.

Future Nobel Prize laureates would conduct their research in this building. I heard lectures on irreversible thermodynamics in the auditorium which inspired my post dated Dec. 16, 2007. The lectures were announced in a glass case hung next to the high entrance portal with dark-brown doors milled from solid oak. The case was adorned with a beautifully carved wooden frame still bearing the name "Kaiser Wilhelm Institute" between oak leaves on top.

After the second world war, the Kaiser Wilhelm Society was transformed into the Max Planck Society. In 2003, the laboratories of the Max Planck Institute for Biophysics strewn across several locations were consolidated in one new facility. Today, the Max Planck Society maintains 80 research institutes with a great variety of emphases ranging from history of arts to plasma physics. Still the Society is providing most funding for the research, including the salaries for principal investigators and staff, thus protecting its scientists to a large degree from the colossal strain and time investment involved in grant writing. The exclusive support may enable the scientists to pursue their research less impeded. However, it does not come without strings attached. Scientific councils rigorously review the research projects and institutes periodically to ensure the best quality of science and progress into important novel directions.

In the United States, the Rockefeller Institute has evolved into an eminent postgraduate private research university. However, federal agencies almost fully fund the research conducted there today. Principal investigators spend much of their time writing grant proposals with ever-diminishing chances for funding. I have explicitly written about the worsening funding situation in this country in my posts dated Oct. 30 , Oct. 23, and Oct. 1, 2008. The receding support for scientific research in the passed eight years is particularly astounding, since already 60 years ago the administration of Harry S. Truman fully recognized that maintaining an environment conducive to fundamental research was in the vital interest of the nation. President Truman's special adviser William T. Golden wrote a now historical expertise in favor of federal funding for fundamental research, influencing federal budgetary decisions for the second half of the last century.

However, the focus of federal funding in this country has shifted over the decades. Translational research from the bench to the bedside has become the overarching theme, obscuring the fact that translational research will not be possible without the understanding of fundamental mechanisms. Today, the private Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) is the only organization that supports fundamental research nationwide in the fashion of the Max Planck Society. But the HHMI's operations are much more limited in scope and support than the enterprises of the Max Planck Society. For example, there is only one HHMI research laboratory with own facilities.

Maintaining funding for cutting-edge research at private universities with extensive overhead may become less and less tenable as the current economic crisis unfolds with full force. Institutions that rely too heavily on rapidly eroding investment portfolios (see my post dated Dec. 9, 2008) may not be able to sustain the momentum and focus necessary for bold discovery in the future. Top research universities project a shrinkage in endowment of up to 30 percent in the current fiscal year. If the United States wishes to maintain worldwide leadership in research and innovation, drastic steps need to be taken immediately to counteract the imminent loss in research assets.

In ten days, this country will welcome a new leadership under President Obama with great challenges, great expectations, and unprecedented opportunities. Perhaps with the new president's inauguration the time has come at this historical moment of national refocus and renewal for another group of eminent scientists to step forward and approach the government with a well-studied proposal for the foundation of a new chain of research institutes dedicated to fundamental research. National preserves for bright ideas that can be pursued less burdened with indirect cost in the mold of the original Rockefeller Institute.

  • Today, I submitted this idea to the new government on the CITIZEN'S BRIEFING BOOK site. Follow this link, if you wish to read about Save Basic Science, or SBS for short (01/15/09).
  • On Jan. 26, Katie Zezima reports in The New York Times that, according to assessments by the Commonfund Institute and the National Association of College and University Business Officers, the endowments of private nonprofit colleges and universities lost on average 22% in value between July 1 and Nov. 30, 2008, and those of public institutions lost 25%; the steepest declines in more than 30 years (01/26/09).
  • This year, the Max-Planck Society has founded its first research institute in the United States. The Max-Planck Florida Institute in Jupiter, FL, will be dedicated to basic brain research in mice under the scientific guidance of the Nobel Prize-laureate Bert Sakmann (12/08/09).


  1. Yes, we've lost our way. With all the focus of the last eight years on the preeminence of the private sector, we've neglected, or scoffed at, the investment of public funds in new big ideas.

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  2. This blog post was written in 2009. In 2003 or so the situation was the same. I was having lunch with a tenured professor who said, in response to our rueing the already plunging levels of gov't funding, that these things are always cyclical. Don't worry, he assured us, things will come around. I replied that he was wrong because the system and attitudes had changed. I said that the wars would become a quagmire and would have to be paid for. How would this be done with legislated lowering of tax rates? And also wage stagnation. And outsourced jobs. Unfortunately, I predicted correctly, and here we are in 2016 with the situtation even worse.