In the race for star medical researchers, N.Y. goes slow

A medical researcher at Purdue University. (AP Photo/Endocyte Inc. via The Journal & Courier)
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Dan Goldberg

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In March, many of the state's most esteemed doctors and medical school officials traveled to Albany to ask for approximately $100 million to recruit and retain top medical research scientists.

When the budget came out in April, they found out what they got: $650,000.

“I guess you can be an optimist and say that it's a beginning,” said Dr. Lee Goldman, dean of health sciences at Columbia University, who made the trip to Albany. “New York State has been badly behind. Where is our $3 billion? I think New York has to decide whether we really want to compete in this arena.”

The relative failure of the delegation, which was organized by the Association of Medical Schools for New York and included top figures in New York medicine—four deans of medical schools, two senior associate deans for research, eight officials from government relations and one professor—was for its members further proof that New York isn’t committed enough to pursuing top medical-research talent.

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Certainly, the contrast between research investment by New York and other states in recent years has been stark.

California voters approved a $3 billion investment over 10 years for stem-cell research. Massachusetts committed $1 billion over a decade, and Connecticut put up $600 million. Texas, under the leadership of tiny-government champion Rick Perry, invested $3 billion over 10 years in what is now the second-largest cancer fund in the United States behind only the National Cancer Institute.

“If someone has an opportunity to leave where they are, and they have an offer in California that draws on their $3 billion or Massachusetts that draws on $1 billion or Texas’ $3 billion, they can get a sweeter deal,” said Dr. David Duggan, dean of SUNY Upstate Medical School.

IT’S NOT CHEAP TO VIE FOR TOP TALENT—THE MARKET FOR SCIENCE Technology and Research scientists, colloquially known as STAR, is fiercely competitive, and the need to attract and retain researchers with new labs, equipment and titles is a constant business.

And as in any other professional arena, there are fads and trends that increase demand. Right now, for example, geneticists, immunologists and neurologists are particularly fashionable.

“The number of individuals exactly fitting that area is not huge, so it does become a highly competitive landscape,” said Dr. Dafna Bar-Sagi, senior vice president and vice dean for science at NYU Langone Medical Center.

And competition is particularly fierce in New York City, whose tightly clustered institutions create competition not only with other localities but with one another.

“There are three, four or five institutions that can compete with each offering a different set of resources,” Bar-Sagi said. “By the time you get to this scene where everyone is upping the ante, it can become a very expensive type of exercise.”

Duggan explained that a dean interested in attracting a STAR researcher needs to be able to offer a proper space to work, new equipment, which can cost upward of $1 million, ancillary equipment, and then they need direct funding to start a program and hire the staff they need to carry out of their research. This is often a multi-million dollar investment just to bring one recruit.

Still, the deans argue, it’s been very short-sighted of the state not to consider the return on initial public investment as it makes its decisions on whether to commit more money to research hospitals.

For one thing, state funding begets federal funding: Federal grants from the National Institutes of Health aren't given to schools; they are given to scientists, and if those scientists move, the grant money moves with them.

Talent moves with these top researchers, too—“like a baseball player will help you win a pennant but they also put fans in the seats,” as Goldman put it.

Jo Wiederhorn, president and C.E.O. of AMSNY, points to a 2010 study from Tripp Umbach, which estimates that for every $1 of investment, the state sees $7.50 of economic output.

An example of how that works: In 2012, Weill Cornell Medical College poached Dr. Lewis C. Cantley, a professor at Harvard and Director of the Cancer Center and chief of the Division of Signal Transduction at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. Cornell's pitch included its brand-new cancer center, with new labs and new equipment. But Cantley doesn't come alone. He brought a staff of post-docs and lab technicians, fellow researchers. Those are all good-paying jobs, and that staff needs a place to eat lunch, take its dry cleaning, etc.

Academic medical schools can partner with pharmaceutical companies leveraging their STAR recruits for even more money. If a new drug or therapy shows promise, clinical trials can take place at that medical center. If those go well, the school might become known for a breakthrough therapy and attract leading physicians who bring more patents, more patients and more money.

The state’s academic medical centers already account for $85 billion in economic impact and 700,000 total jobs. That means they are responsible for one out of every 11 jobs and one out of every $13 dollars generated in the state, according to the Tripp Umbach report.

There’s plenty of precedent for such financial help from the state for the industry in New York.

Between 2002 and 2009, New York had the NYSTAR Faculty Development Program, which assisted institutions of higher education in the recruitment and retention of leading entrepreneurial research faculty in science and technology fields with strong commercial potential. The program was relatively small in scope, but showed promise.