Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Universities for sale? The pernicious effect of reduced state funding on public universities

Historically, state supported public universities have made an immense contribution to the nation's economy, and particularly to the wellbeing of the middle class. Relatively modest in-state tuition has allowed millions of students from low and middle-income families to acquire a college education and thus advance their career prospects. Additionally public universities have been major contributors to the research and development that maintains America's technological edge, and that sustains the progress of medical care. Over the last decade or so, however, the positive role of public universities has been undermined through chronic underfunding by state legislatures. This trend has been well documented in a recent Wall Street Journal article [1] and on Roger Pielke's blog. For example, in 1980 at the University of Colorado students paid about 25% of their education while the state covered 75%; today the ratio is essentially reversed [2]. There are many reasons for this chronic, nationwide reduction in support for public higher education. Increasing Medicaid costs have drained state coffers, improved funding for K-12 education has also competed with higher education funding, and finally conservative legislators and voters in many states have crippled the ability of states to raise money via taxation.

With declining state dollars universities have placed increased emphasis on other sources of funding, primarily research grants and contracts, student tuition, entrepreneurship, and private donations. While there are positive elements to these thrusts, there are also many unintended negative consequences.

The quest for grants and faculty salary disparities.  Research-intensive public universities have sought to capture increasing amounts of federal and private grant and contract support. Overall this is a good thing since it drives research, one of the main missions of an academic institution. However, there are side effects. Faculty at research-intensive institutions, especially ones with strong biomedical programs, are expected to cover a substantial fraction of their salaries from grants, usually in the range of 50-90%. Further, in seeking to promote grant-getting activity, many institutions have developed essentially a bounty system for faculty salaries; if you bag a grant your salary goes up, if you lose one it goes down. Naturally this tends to focus faculty efforts on research and grantsmanship, rather than on teaching; this has been widely discussed, but with little resolution in sight. A subtler side effect is that larger and larger disparities in faculty salaries are becoming common, particularly between professors in the physical or biomedical sciences and those in the humanities. Thus a highly successful professor of biochemistry of or engineering may earn two or three times as much as a professor of history who is equally renown in his/her field. Clearly there should be differences in compensation between faculty members who contribute to the university mission to different degrees. However, grant bounty hunting accentuates these differences in a way that may be disproportionate to true contributions to the university. This can lead to a great deal of dissatisfaction among faculty whose fields are not blessed with abundant opportunities for grantsmanship.

Raising tuition; the student as a customer. Universities nationwide have increasingly adopted the argot and attitudes of big business. One of the most pernicious concepts to have crept into academic thinking is the notion that students are ‘customers’ and thus need to be gratified. This of course is driven by the need to raise tuition to replace state dollars and the consequent fear that students may not apply if tuition is raised. Thus universities now compete to provide better food services, dormitories, athletic services and the like. Unfortunately they also compete in an academic ‘race to the bottom’ that includes massive grade inflation and a reluctance to flunk undeserving students. This last is particularly true in professional schools like medicine or pharmacy where tuition is high; faculty members who give failing grades are pressured to provide remediation thus keeping marginal students in the program. The inevitable result is the undermining of intellectual standards and of the worth of an academic credential. Universities need to think seriously about this issue. As a recent article in the Economist pointed out [3], obtaining a college degree, or even a law degree or MBA, no longer automatically translates into high paying career opportunities. Students cannot be expected to shoulder increasing tuition an increasing debt burden to obtain degrees that have diminished intellectual and economic value.

Entrepreneurship; the elusive goal of demonstrating economic worth. In an effort to demonstrate relevance to the economic health of their states, many research intensive public universities have adopted an ‘entrepreneurial culture’. Thus faculty and even trainees are encouraged to translate lab results into the commercial arena, often by starting small ‘spin off’ companies. Clearly one would like to see research moving out of the ivory tower and being made useful to society, when that is appropriate. However, some universities (and faculty) have bought into the entrepreneurial role to such a degree that the main missions of the university are being compromised, often for the sake of technologies that have questionable commercial value. The primary roles of a faculty member are clearly research and teaching. However, in some settings if you haven’t founded a company or two, your faculty colleagues won’t respect you and your reputation with the higher levels of university administration will suffer. This, coupled with the possibility of large monetary rewards, leads to a feverish pursuit of commercialization of research results. Thus some faculty members spend inordinate amounts of time seeking funding for and organizing their spin off companies, often to the detriment of their teaching and mentoring activities. Unfortunately, only a tiny fraction of spinoffs will ever succeed in bringing significant financial benefits to the faculty member and to the university. This gold rush mentality has even extended to students. For example, some graduate students seem more interested in starting companies than in doing the academic research that will lead to their PhDs. To this observer that approach seems to be putting the cart before the horse. No doubt students are inspired by the examples of Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg, but those rare exceptions are as relevant to the average graduate student as the NBA star is to the average high school basketball player.  

Big donors/ athletic scandals. Public universities are increasingly following the path of private universities in pursuing funding from wealthy donors. Unfortunately in the case of the publics fund raising is often tied to the success of the football or basketball team. This has led to the whole nightmare of big time college sports with its million dollar coaches, pseudo-student athletes, TV contracts, and ultimately academic scandals. Notice that the Ivies and other elite universities have managed to at least partly uncouple private fund raising from big time sports; perhaps their donors are more sophisticated.  In any case the big donor/ big time sports linkage is, at least in part, another manifestation of the results of reduced state funding for public universities. 

In this commentator’s opinion our society needs to rethink the role of public universities.  The current ongoing, haphazard conversion of the major state universities from institutions that exist to serve the public good to enterprises that happen to be in the business of education is a slow motion tragedy.  



Monday, December 10, 2012

siRNA- Nothing but liver?

A recent overview in Nature Biotechnology describes activities of the multiple biotech companies pursuing commercialization of siRNA-based therapeutics.  Other than a few cases involving local therapy (intraocular injection for example) most of the projects focused on the liver or on certain solid tumors. The pragmatic reasons for this are very clear.  Systemic administration of siRNA almost always requires use of lipid or polymer based nanoparticles to protect the siRNA and to enhance its intracellular delivery. Unfortunately this greatly limits the biodistribution of the siRNA since, in most tissues, standard ~ 100 nm nanoparticles are too big to pass across the endothelial barrier that stands between the blood and parenchymal cells. That leaves the liver and certain rapidly growing tumors where there are gaps or ‘fenestrations’ between the endothelial cells that permit the escape of the nanoparticles from the bloodstream. Thus, like the old apocryphal story about the drunk looking for his wallet under the streetlight, because that’s where the light is, the various biotechs seek siRNA applications in the liver, because that’s where the siRNA goes!  Now there are plenty of important diseases that are based in the liver and that may be addressed by siRNA in nanoparticles- that is fine-but what about all the other tissues? Surely there is a need to find ways to deliver siRNA to heart, lungs, other GI organs etc, etc. The biotechs run on short time horizons and need to pursue the path of least resistance in getting siRNA into the clinic. However, it seems that there is a real opportunity here for fundamental research on the extracellular and intracellular transport characteristics of siRNA that could be scientifically interesting and therapeutically relevant.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Are Nanotechnology and Pharmaceutical R & D both about to jump into the pre-competitive pool?

In a thoughtful commentary in NATURE Joshua Pearce discusses how conventional intellectual property strategies (i.e. patent thickets) have hindered the development of commercial nanotechnology. He calls for an open source approach to basic nanotech development similar to the open source software movement. This is a very interesting analysis. It seems that there may a convergent evolution going on in the nanotech industry and the pharmaceutical industry. After decades of focusing almost entirely on internal R&D, big pharma is slowly learning the merits of 'pre-competitive collaboration'. As discussed in  previous posts on this blog, there have been several major thrusts in this direction both at level of preclinical research and more recently at the clinical trials level.

Obviously money still needs to be made both in pharma and in nanotechnology; thus allocation of rewards will be important even in more collaborative models of R&D. In an interesting opinion piece in SCIENCE, Garret FitzGerald argues that new intellectual property approaches are also needed in the drug development field. He goes on to describe some novel strategies for sharing rewards in proportion to the contribution to the final product (a marketed drug) rather than being based on the traditional initial composition of matter patent.

On a broader horizon it is interesting that two of the most technologically advanced segments of our economy may be moving toward models that deviate substantially from classic 'dog eat dog'  capitalism. Will the 'invisible hand' of the market be supplanted by collaborative helping hands that foster more innovation and broader benefits to society?



Tuesday, November 20, 2012

RNAi Feud Is Over

Despite many problems there is still a lot of enthusiasm about using siRNA for therapeutic purposes. Alnylam and Tekmira are two of the better companies in the commercial RNAi arena. However, for the last year or so they have been locked in a legal battle concerning some formulations (termed Lipid Nanoparticles (LNPs)) used to deliver siRNA. It has been sad to see them waste resources on a patent squabble at this critical time for the field. Now apparently this dispute has been settled (see CEN report below).  Thus presumably things will move more smoothly in applying LNPs to deliver siRNA to targets in the liver, where the technology works great.

But what about targets in organs other than the liver? LNPs have a dismal record in this context since they are too big to cross capillary walls in most tissues. Industrial and academic scientists need to work together to develop some advanced siRNA delivery technologies that will have a broader reach within the body.  


Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Scientific Career Prospects: Will We Never Learn?

The American Chemical Society recently sponsored a webinar on ' The Doctoral Glut Dilemma', providing an overview of the current dismal prospects for PhD employment. One of the interesting things about this whole issue is the divergence between spokesmen from government and industry who constantly deplore the 'shortage' of talented scientists and technologists, and the experience of recent PhDs who can't find jobs no matter how hard they try. Then of course there are the economists who say that unemployment among PhDs is slightly less then for everybody else so things are not so bad. This is very consoling after you have spent 5 years toiling as a poorly paid graduate student!

This problem is not new. Debates about overproduction of PhDs have been going on since the 1980's, but we never seem to learn.

The answer of course is to engage in academic birth control. The perverse incentives that lead university faculty members to recruit more and more graduate students need to be reversed. The emphasis should be on quality not quantity.

There is much more on this issue in previous posts on the Science for the Future website.


Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Opportunities for the next generation of scientists?

The election is over. Now the question is whether we will continue on the same self-destructive course of the past decade or will we start to heal ourselves and build for the future. Clearly America’s economic success in coming years will rely more and more on its leadership in science and technology. But where will that leadership come from? The cutbacks in federal research funding over the last several years have been devastating to the nascent careers of young scientists across the spectrum. In my own area of biomedical research funding percentiles for NIH grants have plummeted to historic lows, with less then 10% of new grants being funded. This is incredibly stressful for young investigators, introducing major disruptions and uncertainties both in careers and in the lives of young families. How can we attract the best and brightest young people to science and technology when career prospects are so dismal?

To ameliorate this situation we need to do several things. First, despite the constrained fiscal climate, our political leaders need to recognize the key role of science and technology for future economic success and begin to re-invest in science. Second, our academic institutions need to understand that they have engaged in a profligate overproduction of science PhDs and that the emphasis in the future should be on quality not quantity. Third, both academia and industry need to give some thought to mechanisms to enhance career stability for scientists so that the loss of a grant or the end of a project doesn’t mean the end of a career. Maybe this is a pipedream, but if we don’t take these measures we are going to be rapidly surpassed by nations that take a longer view of science, technology and economic growth.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Hot Water

Talk about scary. In a recent commentary in Nature Fredrick Kaufman discusses the impending commoditization of water. In a world with an ever-expanding population and ever-increasing desire for material goods, there is a growing realization that fresh water will become a limiting resource. Thus the Wall Street 'masters of the universe' are starting to consider how commoditize water resources and bring them into the global gambling casino of futures, derivatives, and credit default swaps. As Kaufman points out this has already been done with foodstuffs leading to recent successive waves of speculation-driven inflated food prices, particularly in less developed counties. 

If ever there was a need for good public policy this is it. Water needs to stay in the public domain and be regulated for the overall well-being of the population, not for the benefit of a greedy few.  



Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Glaxo lifts the veil

As recently reported in Nature and other venues, GlaxoSmithKline will begin sharing raw data from its clinical trials.  This will include studies since 2007 on both approved and abandoned drugs. There will be gatekeepers in the form of an expert panel that will restrict access to those with legitimate scientific interests. While not perfect, this is a big step beyond previous practices in the industry.  However, Glaxo may be getting ahead of the curve because it realizes that by 2013 the European Medicines Agency will begin allowing access to clinical trials data for products it receives for registration.

Hats off to Glaxo (and to the EMA). The release of clinical trials data should be a major step forward in several ways. Not only will it help to ensure patient safety, but it may also be a start in constraining the cost of drug development by reducing redundancy in the clinical phase of pharmaceutical research.  The vast increase in the cost of new drug development over the last couple of decades can largely be traced back to failed phase II and III trials. When those trials are done behind a veil of corporate secrecy there is no learning from past mistakes and no benefit to the research community.

The Glaxo and EMA decisions point to a path that should have been taken years ago. 

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Big Pharma realizes that the model is broken.

An encouraging report in the NY Times described a new collaborative effort involving several major pharmaceutical companies. The project, called TransCelerate, is intended to make clinical trials more efficient. It would include attempts to develop standard protocols for trials and an internet portal for sharing information. In essence, this is a first step in bringing clinical trials out from behind the walls of corporate secrecy and into the pre-competitive space. This is a welcome development (if it actually works). 

Friday, September 7, 2012

Planning Career Paths for Ph.D.s

 In this week's Editorial in SCIENCE James Austin and Bruce Alberts commented on the value of individual development plans (IDPs) for postdoctoral career development.  The dearth of meaningful opportunities for Ph.D. career development has been a concern of mine for a long time. Thus I was prompted to post the following comment on their editorial. These sentiments hark back to an essay I wrote about two years ago that was my first post on this blog.

Dear Drs. Austin and Alberts,

IDPs are a nice tool for career development. However, the key obstacle for most young Ph.D.s is the lack of meaningful jobs.  Ph.D. and postdoctoral training emphasize the development of sophisticated research skills. Yet as you point out “today, most graduates end up working outside academia, not only in industry but also in careers such as science policy, communications, knowledge brokering, and patent law“. Thus even if there are jobs to be had (a big if in today’s economy) they are in fields that may require some knowledge of science, but do not require the focus on research that is the key element of Ph.D. training.  The accompanying article in this week’s issue of SCIENCE on East Asia's "Reverse Brain Drain" further emphasizes the desperation of many young scientists in the US and Europe who may have to pull up roots to look for jobs in Asia. The ultimate solution is not IDPs, but rather scientific birth control to reduce the number while increasing the quality of science Ph.D.s and postdoctorals. For a fuller discussion see- “Why are there still too many graduate students?” at  

Tuesday, September 4, 2012


A recent News item in NATURE correctly deplored recent violent attacks on nanotechnologists in Mexico and elsewhere. While there is no justification for violence, one of the readers (HT) sagely commented that public backlash against nanotechnology might derive in part from the tendency of scientists in the nano field to overstate the breakthrough nature of their work thus inspiring public fears and concerns. Sadly we have observed the same tendency in our dealings with some in the nanotechnology community and have written about the limitations of nanotech, particularly in the context of nanomedicine.

The correction for any impending public backlash against nanotech is to present a sober, realistic  picture of the field to the public, to the press, and to funding agencies. No more Nano-hype!


Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Caloric intake and aging

The concept that a calorie restricted diet could extend lifetimes and reduce major diseases like cancer has been around for a while and has been tested in a number of lower organisms with promising results. However, a 25 year long calorie restriction trial in our cousin the rhesus monkey failed to show such effects (see URL below). Animals  fed a diet with 30% less calories than controls, while healthy, did not outlive their fatter peers.  It is too bad that this simplistic approach to longevity did not work. However, twiddling one dial seldom works in complex biological systems. The pursuit of human enhancement, including enhanced lifetimes, will no doubt go on and no doubt there will be some successes. Perhaps we need to start thinking more about the societal consequences of such efforts before we go too far down that path.


Monday, August 20, 2012

The (squishy) Robots Are Coming (and taking your job!)

Two disparate articles this week got me thinking about the future of work. A feature in the NY Times described the rapid evolution of workplace robots that can seemingly do the type of complex assembly processes that now occupy millions of low-wage workers overseas. This may help to return some manufacturing to the US, but will not be providing many new jobs. An article in SCIENCE discussed ‘soft machines’ that move similarly to soft-bodied sea creatures and that can assume new colors or shapes.  Coupled with advances in computer based speech recognition and response (e.g. Apple’s Siri), it is not hard to project these developments into the creation of android-like machines that could mimic many human functions in the workplace, not only in manufacturing but in many service related activities as well. Do we need to start thinking about a workplace without humans?

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/19/business/new-wave-of-adept-robots-is-changing-global-industry.html?ref=science http://www.sciencemag.org/content/337/6096/828.full

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

A failed Alzheimer's therapy; implications for pharmaceutical R & D

A recent note in Science Insider describes the failed clinical trial of a monoclonal against β amyloid. The failure of bapineuzumab is a blow to Alzheimer’s patients, their families, and to the pharmaceutical companies that have made major investments in the underlying research and clinical trials. Addressing chronic disease in the CNS is clearly a challenging and risky proposition. The failure of massive phase III studies such as the bapineuzumab trial is a key driver of the escalating costs of R&D in big pharma. This raises the question of whether the current model of pharmaceutical R&D is able to address diseases like Alzheimer’s or whether novel strategies are needed. Individual company-specific research programs and clinical trials may be nearing obsolescence. New approaches involving a higher degree of cooperation between industry, government and academia may be essential to address the difficult challenges of multifactorial chronic diseases. Drug development in the precompetitive space is being increasingly considered as an alternative strategy, but the concept needs further evolution.

For more information on this topic watch for an upcoming Kindle book “Pharmaceutical Innovation and Public Policy: the Case for a New Strategy for Drug Discovery and Development”.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Are stem cells drugs?

Apparently they are according to U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. Legally establishing stem cells as drugs may be good news for academic drug discovery. This is an area where academics have extensive experience while big pharma does not. While engineered stem cells will no doubt need to go through the equivalent stringent safety testing as conventional drugs, the approaches and technologies used may be more consistent with contemporary academic biomedical research labs than the rather sterile pre-clinical toxicology studies used for drugs. Thus maybe another boost for academic drug discovery centers.


Friday, July 20, 2012

Yes we have to talk about fracking (since everybody else is).

An interesting account on the Science Progress blog by  A. Briggle and J. Kincaid discusses public viewpoints on fracking. It points out that they seem to divide not on traditional conservative vs liberal axes but rather 'proactionary' (positive about technology) versus 'precautionary' (concerned about anticipating negative consequences).  This may be a bit simplistic, however. It seems to me that the real issue in fracking is not whether to do it or not (gas is better than coal), but how to make sure the business model of fracking includes the full cost of preventing or reversing the accompanying environmental consequences.


Human Enhancement and the London Olympics

A recent discussion in Nature of the role of genetic mutations in athletic prowess is quite fascinating. The authors (J. Enriquez and S. Gullins) point out that success in several types of events has been associated with specific mutations. They raise the question of whether athletes with specific genetic advantages will be handicapped, or alternatively if there will be a thrust toward allowing intentional genetic enhancement. They also mention the precedent set by Oscar Pistorius, the Paralympic champion runner who will be allowed to compete in the Olympics using his advanced prostheses. Recent developments in gene and stem cell therapies and in human-machine interactions are rapidly setting the stage for unprecedented capabilities to enhance human functions. Will the world of ultra-competitive athletics rather than the medical arena be the first staging ground for major deployment of human enhancement technologies?


Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Federal Innovation Policy?

In an interesting analysis on the Science Progress website Profs. B. Godin and J.P. Lane  deplore that federal R& D expenditures strongly emphasize the R component and do not support commercialization.  However, the authors seem to make the assumption that what is good for business is also good for society. Certainly we want to expedite conversion of basic research to useful and desirable products, but in many cases commercial definition of what is desirable is very questionable. Think of the auto industry's long fights against seat belts or increased fuel efficiency for example. Translational research, moving ideas from the lab to the clinic, is a key topic in biomedical research circles these days. Unfortunately no one knows how to do it very well. I suspect the same is true in other areas of R & D. Probably increased federal support for commercialization of key technologies would be a good thing as long as there is some thought given as to which technologies are best for society and not just for the bottom line of particular corporations.

. http://scienceprogress.org/2012/06/is-america%E2%80%99s-science-technology-and-innovation-policy-open-for-business/

Friday, June 8, 2012

A True Greening of Corporations

In one of the most insightful articles I have ever read, Pavan Sukhdev, formerly a UN economist,  describes the reforms needed to have large corporations contribute to warding off our impending environmental disaster. Pointing out that corporations extract approximately $2 trillion in ecosystem services annually, Sukhdev suggests  four rather revolutionary approaches to mitigating these immense negative impacts. This includes measuring and minimizing ecosystem costs, building human and social capital, reducing speculative over-leveraging in business transactions, and increased taxation of resource use.

Clearly the ultra free market globalized economy that has been the model for that last several decades is on a collision course with the ability of nature to sustain it. We need to start seriously thinking about radically different ways  to organize the world economy. The article by Sukhdev is an important start.