Private Labs Are Suffering

The closure of an independent biomedical research institute near Boston has drawn attention to the similar predicament of other private labs that rely on federal grants.

By | November 21, 2012

Flickr, University of California DavisOver-reliance on shrinking federal research budgets led to the closure last week (November 15) of the Boston Biomedical Research Institute (BBRI) in Watertown, Massachusetts, a move that not only ended 44 years of biomedical research but also highlighted the similar struggles of independent research institutes across the United States.

“The BBRI could be a bellwether,” Jonathan Chernoff, chief scientific officer of the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia—recently bought by Temple University—told Nature. “The same thing may befall other institutes, even the larger ones.”

Researchers in private labs are free from the teaching responsibilities that can weigh down those working at universities or hospitals. But by the same token, independent institutes don’t have the revenue from tuition fees or the administrative infrastructure to generate funds from elsewhere, so they rely more heavily on money from National Institutes of Health (NIH) grants for individual investigators—making them vulnerable to the continued economic downturn.

In the case of the BBRI, the figures tell the story. In 2010, it received $10 million in NIH grants—more than 80 percent of the institute’s entire budget. But by 2012, it received only $6.5 million in grant money, and projections for 2013 calculated in July came in at $3 million. In debt and unable to raise enough funds through other channels, the BBRI was forced to close its doors.

Faced with a similar situation, other private labs are laying off non-essential staff and aggressively seeking money from philanthropists. Some are trying to forge partnerships with pharmaceutical and biotech companies. For example, the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia has built relationships with 50 companies, such that it relied on government grants for only 52 percent of its revenue in 2010.

But both of these funding strategies are fraught with challenges, so many independent research ventures fear the worst. “We have a nimbleness, which you don’t get at a university,” Chernoff told Nature. “But we little ships are in danger of sinking.”

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