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Can wealthy donors rescue scientific research from declining federal funding?
BY JOE ROJAS-BURKE | PHOTOS BY JASON KAPLAN
It was an entirely new and untested direction in cancer research. Realistically, it was not likely to succeed. You didn’t need a Ph.D. in biology to know that. But Wayne Kingsley, chairman of the Portland Spirit tour boat company, was intrigued by the story he was hearing from Dr. Walter Urba, a medical oncologist and cancer researcher in Portland. Urba was caring for a friend of Kingsley’s with colon cancer, and Kingsley’s curiosity inevitably led to hallway conversations with Urba about his research.
“Rarely in your life do you get a chance to get involved in something like this,” says Kingsley, who with his wife Joan donated a few thousand dollars to the project. “It looked like it had potential. I liked the researchers involved. I thought, what the hay? Maybe these guys will be successful.It would be a win for Portland.”
Scientists led by Andy Weinberg on Urba’s team at Providence Health & Services had found a potential way to tweak a person’s native immune system to mount a highly targeted attack on tumors. The key was a protein called OX40. The researchers used antibodies to target OX40 and found that in laboratory mice, the treatment shrank a variety of tumor types, including breast, colon and kidney cancers.
To take the work to the next step — preliminary testing in human subjects — the team figured they’d need to raise at least $1.5 million. And that stood in the way like a forbidding mountain. It is almost impossible to get funding for that sort of research from the federal government. Out of sheer necessity, Urba and colleagues resorted to a Kickstarter-style campaign to raise the money from a crowd of private donors such as Kingsley.
Since 1993 federal funding for biomedical research has fallen by more than 22% at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), after accounting for inflation. Budget cuts are also shrinking the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy, which support basic science, technology and engineering.
And everywhere, it seems, private donors wielding large checkbooks are playing an increasingly important role in the funding — and direction — of scientific research. Intel billionaire Gordon Moore has given $200 million for the construction of an advanced astronomy telescope on a mountaintop in Hawaii. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen has donated $500 million to establish a brain research institute in Seattle. Not to be outdone, Bill Gates has donated an estimated $10 billion in the cause of global public health.
In Oregon Bob Moore, founder of Bob’s Red Mill, and his wife, Charlee, have given more than $30 million for nutrition research since 2011. Earlier this month, Columbia Sportswear CEO Tim Boyle and his wife announced a $10 million gift to support cancer research at Oregon Health & Science University.
For all the good such gifts are likely to do, the rising profile of philanthropists is troubling to some scientists and university leaders. Critics worry the trend could turn science into a popularity contest, with billionaires’ pet projects drawing money away from deserving but unsexy scientific fields, and from capable but lesser-known universities. Private philanthropy is unlikely to make up for what’s being lost in federal funding, and some fear that the attention-getting gifts of private billionaires will undermine political support for federal science agencies.
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