Private Science

Brian Druker, Director, OHSU Knight Cancer Institute Brian Druker, Director, OHSU Knight Cancer Institute

Can wealthy donors rescue scientific research from declining federal funding?


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.

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Portland Spirit co-founder Wayne Kingsley 

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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Dr. Patrick Phillips, associate VP for research,
University of Oregon 

Urba, director of the Robert W. Franz Cancer Research Center, isn’t particularly alarmed by the growing influence of wealthy donors who are taking an interest in science. “It’s gratifying to see them spend it on research rather than buy another plaything,” he says. But Urba is worried about the decline of federal funding, and the potential loss of talented young people from science because they see little chance for building a career in the insanely competitive battle for dwindling grant support. “We had a significant edge on the rest of the world,” he says. “That is drastically being eroded.”

Nike chairman Phil Knight made a forceful statement of the changing times last September. At a black-tie gathering of wealthy supporters of Oregon Health & Science University at the Nines Hotel, he stunned the audience with the surprise announcement of a billion-dollar challenge grant for the Knight Cancer Institute at OHSU led by Dr. Brian Druker, an exalted scientist who is among those frequently mentioned as a candidate for the Nobel Prize. Druker is famous for leading the development of the leukemia drug Gleevec, one of the most successful cancer treatments ever developed.

“It is incumbent on everyone in this room to do what he can to keep the miracles coming,” said Knight, hunched over the podium, reading from written notes. “Accordingly, I make the following pledge: Penny and I will donate $500 million if it is matched within two years in a fundraising campaign.” Surprised gasps gave way to whoops and thundering applause as the audience rose to a standing ovation.

Standing there, dumbstruck, OHSU foundation president Keith Todd thought, “That’s brilliant: springing that in front of the 400 people who have been the most supportive of us.” His second thought was: “Oh. My. God.”

Across the state, it is dawning on leaders of universities and other scientific-research institutions that they are going to have to change fundraising strategies and more aggressively court wealthy patrons. “We really have no choice,” says Dr. Patrick Phillips, a biology professor and associate vice president for research at the University of Oregon. “Those gifts are going to be critical for maintaining our research capacity.”

NIH Appropriations 1995—2015 
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Federal spending on scientific research totaled about $30 billion last year. That’s down from a high of $40 billion in 2009, but still far more than funding from billionaires and foundations. Philanthropic foundations spend about $2 billion per year on science, according to the Science Philanthropy Alliance, a collaboration recently formed by six foundations that are concerned about the shifting support of research. “It’s terrific that private philanthropy is stepping in,” says Phillips. “But on a national scale, it’s not going to be sufficient to maintain our leadership in science. That is potentially at risk here.”

In the competition for private dollars, the clear loser is basic science; that is, research with no direct application, aimed at pure understanding of how the world works. According to the Alliance, 75% of the $2 billion foundations spend on science goes to medical and biological research, leaving 25% for physics, chemistry, mathematics and engineering. Phillips expects medical and applied research to continue to attract more philanthropic dollars.

“That is a challenge for the University of Oregon because we don’t necessarily have faculty who are trying to cure disease. They are trying to understand the underlying processes,” he says. Phillips asserts that fundamental discoveries in physics, chemistry and biology funded by the government were what enabled U.S. companies to leap ahead of the world in engineering, computer science and medicine. “We take that leadership for granted but there is no reason all of that couldn’t be in the hands of another country in 30 years,” he says.

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Dr. Brian Druker, Director, OHSU Knight Cancer Center

There is also a risk that the flow of money for science could become less fair for smaller institutions, less influential social groups and regions with fewer connections to billionaires. Federal science agencies aren’t perfect, but they make systematic efforts to coordinate their funding portfolios so that elite institutions, populous cities and tenured white-male professors don’t hog all of the grants. “Fundamentally at stake … is the social contract that cultivates science for the common good,” is how The New York Times recently summed up the issue.

At the Knight Cancer Institute, physician and scientist Druker is mindful of the downsides that could come with greater reliance on philanthropy. He does not dismiss the potential for harm.

“Does the funding get directed toward a specific area in a way that may not be as productive for funding the best science?” Druker says. “I think, in some cases, it’s a very real concern. If there are strings attached saying ‘you can only do this style of research,’ then there may be concerns that you impede progress. Phil and Penny Knight have been cognizant of that; they know that they aren’t cancer experts.”

Within OHSU, some faculty and administrators worried that the challenge would drain support for everything but cancer. Todd says that hasn’t happened; divisions outside of the Knight Cancer Institute raised $90 million in the past year, matching what OHSU has typically raised across the entire university. Phil Knight’s gift has raised the profile of the whole institution, Todd says. “It’s validating to get that large of a commitment,” he says. “We are having audiences we wouldn’t get otherwise.”

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Summary of Trends in NIH Funding FY1995—FY2013 

With $1 billion in the offing, Druker says he and his colleagues at the Knight Cancer Institute are trying to build in checks and balances to make sure they invest their new fortune wisely. For instance, they have assembled a board of external advisors to critically review research projects. “It’s not just me saying this is how it should happen,” Druker says.

At the same time, Druker makes the point that a gift such as the Knights’ can give scientists freedom to do research that they might not be able to attempt with traditional federal grants.

“It allows us to think bigger and bolder, and to do something other people might think is too difficult to do,” he says. Federal agencies such as the NIH tend to shy away from funding high-risk ideas with potential to completely overturn existing theories, he says. They tilt toward funding “safe” ideas; that is, studies that incrementally add to existing knowledge and are deemed more likely to succeed.

“That’s good. We need to fund that,” Druker says. “But if you really want to fund innovative work, you need to create an environment that allows room to fail from time to time.”

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Knight Cancer Institute intern Catherine Welgan 

Druker’s master plan focuses on the early detection of cancer, and it builds on the approach he used in the development of Gleevec, a drug that has saved tens of thousands of lives. Work on that drug started with the discovery of the events at a molecular level that prompt blood cells to start multiplying out of control, causing leukemia. The goal is to find new ways to reliably detect all cancers early based on their molecular fingerprints, to reveal each cancer’s particular weaknesses, and to treat only those likely to pose a real danger.

“We are setting an aspirational goal,” Druker says. “It was apparent that Phil and Penny Knight don’t want us to do something everyone else is doing.”

It’s clear that some private philanthropists want to shape the scientific agenda, but often by supporting fields that have suffered for lack of mainstream support. Bob Moore, founder of Bob’s Red Mill Natural Foods, and his wife, Charlee, donated $25 million to create an institute for nutrition and wellness at OHSU in 2011. Before that, they gave $5 million to Oregon State University to start a research and outreach center focusing on nutrition and disease prevention. Moore asked the universities to use the money to tackle unhealthy eating and inadequate nutrition with scientific research, but also public education.

“I’m giving money to these causes to keep them moving along because I think it’s a healthy thing for our community,” Moore says.

Others who’ve stepped forward to fund science in Oregon are specifically motivated by the shrinking role of government. “I think we have to intervene,” says Wayne Drinkward, president of Hoffman Construction Company, one of Oregon’s largest private companies. Drinkward was in the audience when Knight announced his billion-dollar challenge. Inspired by that gift, Drinkward told Hoffman employees the company would match their donations dollar for dollar, and that he would personally match the employees’ and company’s total. In the end, they raised $1.4 million.

 “Phil Knight — he’s put something out there that’s big enough to make a significant difference. If we’re going to make that progress, it’s going to happen that way,” Drinkward says. “It isn’t probably going to get solved by a government deal.” Congress is too polarized, he says, and scientific research is competing with too many programs, like social security and defense, with far more voters and political interests demanding money.

Tim Boyle, president and chief executive of Columbia Sportswear, says philanthropists have an obligation to fill the void left by the decline in federal funding. “The government has a certain obligation. But faced with limited resources, government can’t do everything,” he says. Boyle and his wife, Mary, have made the largest private donation so far in answer to Phil Knight’s challenge. OHSU says it’s raised more than $310 million. The Boyle donation will create a mentorship fund that will help OHSU recruit and support graduate students and early career cancer researchers.

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Research assistant Kyle Lenz

Boyle says he made no effort to micromanage the use of the gift. “We asked where we would have the most benefit, and Dr. Druker suggested a mentoring program,” he says. “I don’t know much about the medical research laboratory environment.”

Urba, the head of cancer research at Providence, says it is theoretically possible for money from wealthy donors to become an undue influence. But in practice, he says, “I don’t see it.” And engaging with nonscientists can bring benefits beyond donations, he says.

Judith Hartmann, a lawyer and businesswoman who was a patient of Urba’s, started digging into breast cancer research after her diagnosis. Hartmann’s interest led to a role with the Department of Defense Breast Cancer study section as a patient advocate. She became a member of the Providence Cancer Center Foundation board and regularly joined Urba, Weinberg and other researchers in discussions about OX40, the promising new therapy idea.

After one scientific talk, Hartmann raised her hand and asked the researchers why they were waiting to develop OX40 for clinical trials. “After Judy’s planting the seed, we discussed ways that could make this idea become a reality for cancer patient clinical trials,” Weinberg later wrote.  Hartmann died of breast cancer at age 61 in 2005, but her advocacy kept researchers focused on the goals important to patients.

The biggest practical downside Urba says he has run into is the expanding amount of time that scientists must commit to courting donors. “One always needs to worry how much time is reasonable for people working in the lab to spend chasing money,” he says. “Every minute doing that is a minute not spent dreaming up the next treatment idea that works.”

Druker, the acclaimed cancer scientist, says he now spends 20% of his time acting as a fundraising ambassador. He made a personal appearance this month at an event for employees of the Standard Insurance Co., who have pledged $250,000 to the Knight Cancer Institute. Druker has embraced the role of pitchman, and views it as a strategic necessity and a way to ensure that rank-and-file researchers can spend more of their work time thinking and experimenting at the lab bench.

“If I need to spend 30% of my job raising funds, that’s my job,” he says.

At Providence Cancer Center, 70% of funding for research now comes from private donors, a proportion that 10 years ago came from the federal government. Private donors such as Kingsley came through at a pivotal time for Weinberg and collaborators working on OX40. With money secured, the unlikely treatment sailed through safety testing. And on the basis of promising early results in 2011, the researchers licensed the OX40 treatment to MedImmune, a unit of the global pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, which is now pursuing the large-scale clinical trials necessary to prove whether it can be brought to market.

“Without individual donors, OX40 wouldn’t exist,” says Urba. “It is a direct result of people coming into the lab and writing checks.”

The largest donations were in the $100,000 range. Many were closer to $500 or $1,000. And that says a lot about Oregon’s particular dilemma, as scientific research, education and other realms traditionally funded by the government become increasingly dependent on wealthy patrons.

No city in Oregon has as many billionaires to call upon as Boston, New York, San Francisco or Seattle. So far, no others in Oregon have proposed anything comparable to the billion-dollar Knight challenge. Although the state has many fine research institutions, it has none that are drawing philanthropists’ money at anywhere close to the level of a Stanford, Harvard or Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Yet spending on scientific research and education may be one of the most important investments for a state in an increasingly knowledge-based economy.

Fiscal constraints and political realities make it unlikely that the federal government will significantly increase its support of science. Private foundations and wealthy philanthropists are likely to become even more important to research institutions. In Oregon, they have their work cut out for them.


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