Ever since 1983, when it was establisbed with a $300 million gift from the late Kentucky racehorse breeder Lucille P. Markey, the Markey trust has been sinking millions into basic biomedical research. At the same time the Miami-based endowment has been earning millions in interest on investments largely tied to oil properties. The net result: an enormous cash balance of close to $133 million—all of which must be given away over the next seven and one-half years, when, according to a condition set forth in Mrs. Markey’s will, the trust will go out of the funding business permanently.
As the organization reaches the halfway mark on its way to the 1997 spending deadline, there has been talk that it may change course in the way it distributes its remaining wealth. Until now, Markey has concentrated almost exclusively on two funding programs: the prestigious Markey Scholar Awards; and the doling out of multimillion-dollar research program grants, awarded largely to the nation’s tip universities. But since this past February, when the trustees met to review priorities for the coming years, speculation has run high that the Markey’s immense wealth is increasing beyond its ability to spend it before the clock runs out. If this is the case, it may mean that more money will be forthcoming for individual postdoctoral investigators.
But according to Markey officials, rumors that there’s no bottom to the trust’s self-acknowledged cavernous pockets have been greatly exaggerated. “Our problem is not in giving all of our money away, but giving it away wisely,” says program coordinator Nancy Weber.
Basically, says Robert J. Glaser, Markey’s director for medical science, the trustees’ agenda for going out of business calls for staying the course it established in its first half. In other words, Markey will continue its tradition of awarding hefty sums to the best and the brightest in basic biomedical research, regardless of whether the best and the brightest also happen to be among those researchers and institutions already handsomely funded. Over the past five years, for example, researchers from Harvard, Stanford, and MIT have captured about one-third of the $19.3 million distributed under the trust’s Scholar Awards for Biomedical Science, also known as the Markey Fellowships. Similarly, Harvard, Stanford, and Yale rank among the top five institutions to receive the largest Markey research program grants. And the pattern is likely to continue.
While some in the scientific community have criticized the trust’s “best and brightest” policy as working to make the rich even richer, Glaser makes no apologies for the fact that Markey grants aren’t for everyone. “What we’re looking for is the very best,” he says. "That’s not to say that we go out with an a priori idea of who we will award. But clearly, some institutions have an enormous amount of talent and very good people. That’s why they have the reputations they have.”
Even for the best young investigators, however, the first step to securing a Markey Scholar Award isn’t as simple as making application. Rather, individual researchers must be nominated by the institution with which they are affiliated. Awards are then made to the institution, which in turn funds the individual scientists. Each year, institutions can nominate as many as six scholars. In turn, the trust awards a maximum of 16 scholarships—eight to investigators who hold a Ph.D and eight to nominees with M.D. or M.D./Ph.D. degrees.
Thirty-four-year-old molecular biologist Ron Kopito is among the 61 young researchers who currently hold a Markey scholarship. Nominated by MIT’s Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research while a postdoctoral fellow, he is now on the faculty at Stanford’s Department of Bioscience. Like all Markey scholars with a Ph.D., his award has two phases: During the first phase, the award provides an annual research allowance of $15,000 forup to three years of postdoctoral training; during the second phase, the award covers a scholar’s initial years of faculty service. In this period, Markey fellows receive a salary, which is determined by their institution, as well as a total of $200,000 in research support, which is distributed over a five-year period, gradually decreasing from $60,000 during the first year to $15,000 in the fifth and final year. The idea here is that in later years the scholar will be successful in securing research funds from sources other than the Markey trust.
What makes the Markey award unique and extremely useful, Kopito says, is that it bridges the traditional funding gap between postdoctoral training and faculty service. Most funding instituitons will support either a postdoctoral researcher or a faculty member, but none—other than the Markey—will carry an investigator through the transition.
“This is a real problem because often it takes two years to get an exciting project to reach fruition, and unfortunately, this is often the time when postdoctoral grants will run out,” Kopito notes. “The choice then is to leave for another grant or to take on a faculty position when it may be premature to do so.”
Furthermore, the Markey award offers a client the financial wherewithal to choose a faculty position carefully. Because the grant “follows” the postdoctoral investigator to the faculty level, the recipient is, in a sense, paying his or her own salary—not the institution, which only sets the salary level. As a result, scientists can choose a faculty post that best fits their own research requirements rather than one that may require the scientist to spend a lot of time teaching.
“This is extremely useful because long-term stability is very hard to come by these days,” says Martin Yarmush, a 35-year-old biochemist and M.D., who is a Markey Scholar now on the faculty at the State University of New Jersey at Rutgers. “The Markey [award] is certainly a credential that makes universities stand up and take notice because it relieves them of the [financial] pressure involved in getting a young scientist started,” says Yarmush, a specialist in immunotechnology.
Perhaps most beneficial is the fact that the generous funds provided to a Markey Scholar allow the scientist to undertake experimental research projects. “Since you don’t have to apply for funding for five years, you’re free to branch out into things that a more conservative agency wouldn’t fund,” Kopito notes. This has allowed Kopito to pursue experiments concerning the molecular biology of ion movement across cell membranes—experiments that in his view “have been begging to be done for years.”
It is this tradition of flexibility that the Markey trust intends to keep up during its final years, according to Glaser. “The Markey grants have an impact because of their flexibility,” he says. “There is money for people to take new approaches and steps. We figure the funds we offer have a special value because they are less restricted than funds from say, government sources.”
This flexibility carries over into the Markey’s research grants program under which universities and other institutions with a major commitment to the life sciences are given large sums of money that can be put to any number of uses, ranging from establishing a new program or department in developmental biology to setting up a stipend program for promising young graduate students.
At Stanford, for example, a $12.6 million Markey research grant is being used for both of these purposes, according to Dr. Lucille Shapiro, chairman of the university’s newly established department of developmental biology.
“One of the best parts of being a Markey (program) is that we can use discretion in how we spend the money,” she says. In September, Stanford’s first graduate class in developmental biology will begin, with some of the new students receiving stipends that are awarded by the university on a competitive basis.
At California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, a full two-thirds of a $12.5 million Markey grant is being used to fund faculty members with new programs in developmental biology. The remaining money is being put toward designing new instrumentation for protein and DNA analysis and synthesis.
“We setup the program of special grants so we can try new applications to problems,” says biology professor Leroy E. Hood. This allows faculty members to setup new programs and develop a track record so that they can then apply for other funds, particularly from the National Institutes of Health, he explains. Because the Markey money has enabled such a program, “it has probably been some of the most worthwhile, cost-effective and highly leveraged funding CalTech has ever received,” Hood adds.
Proposals for other innovative programs like those at Stanford and CalTech are not in short supply, according to Markey’s Glaser, who says the trust has a backlog of worthwhile requests that it has had to turn down in the past. Nonetheless, the trust continues to encourage proposals and nominations from institutions with novel research projects in mind. Once submitted, these proposals will be evaluated by Glaser and a group of five independent consultants, all eminent researchers in their own right. Another 10-member committee, also composed of renowned scholars, has complete responsibility for selecting Markey Scholars.
As for the trust’s future direction, Glaser says: “You won’t see any significant changes in what we’ll do.” But as the trust enters into its final years, Glaser can’t help hoping that its work will be continued.
“It’s a fair statement that everybody is quite enthusiastic about what we have been able to accomplish,” he says. “We’d love to see some other organization pick up and continue when we go out of business, but there’s always a problem with people not wanting to finish what somebody started.”
Julia King is a freelance writer based in Ridley Park,Pa.