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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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June 17, 2014

Scripps Merging With USC?

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Posted by Derek

This news broke last night: that USC might be acquiring Scripps. It all looks to come down to tight federal money: that's where most of the funding comes from, and institutions that rely on grants (and overhead from grants) to survive are having to cut back. (There were, for example, a number of layoffs earlier this year at the Broad Institute in Cambridge, for just that reason).

As you can see from that story, I was called last night for comment about this, and I have to say, I was very surprised (although maybe not as surprised as the reporter was when I started quoting Tennyson). The loss of several big names over the last few years has made it clear that there were some difficulties inside Scripps, which made quite a contrast to the era when they burst on the organic chemistry scene by making huge offers to a number of star professors. But I couldn't think of another example where one department more or less takes over another one, and I especially couldn't think of anything happening at this level.

It doesn't look like a done deal yet, and even if it does go forward, how things will work is unclear. (It's also unclear what this means for the Scripps branch in Florida). More on this as it develops.

Comments (41) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: General Scientific News


1. Matt on June 17, 2014 7:26 AM writes...

The Dude abides ... And, I'm guessing that Baran is The Dude in this particular abiding.

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2. David on June 17, 2014 7:27 AM writes...

While in a field less familiar to the readers of this blog, I was at Wash U when they "acquired" the Central Institute for the Deaf.

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3. Jonathan on June 17, 2014 7:38 AM writes...

As a former TSRI postdoc (in Immunology, the original department but now very much the poor relation there) this news saddens me.

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4. Hap on June 17, 2014 8:28 AM writes...

I wonder if Scripps Florida could get UMiami or Florida (or Florida State) to acquire/merge with them? It makes things more complicated, but if there were money involved, USC could use the money to pay for their merger.

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5. NaturalChemist on June 17, 2014 8:36 AM writes...

I had no idea Scripps Institution of Oceanography was merging with USC

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6. entropyGain on June 17, 2014 8:59 AM writes...

100% overhead rates on grants are an obscenity.
A little "synergy" for academic overhead seems like a pretty good thing to me. Now when will the NIH cap overheads at 50%? Would leave a lot more research $ for everyone.

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7. Anonymous on June 17, 2014 9:01 AM writes...

#6 totally agree. that has to happen. universities, esp. top 10 have to spend some of that endowment.

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8. newnickname on June 17, 2014 9:49 AM writes...

Isn't UCSD spitting distance from Scripps? And many faculty have joint Scripps - UCSD appointments? Merge the management, outsource it to Sacramento (or Mumbai), and share cafeterias and the mailroom to save money and reduce overhead.

USC is over 100 miles and over 2 hours away. It would be a completely separate campus ... might as well be in Cambridge, MA! (Hmmm ... Harvard - Scripps merger anyone?)

USC endowment is around $3.9 B; Harvard is around $33 B.

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9. Anon on June 17, 2014 9:56 AM writes...

NIH needs to grow a pair. Collins is running academics into the ground with his inaction. For some reason they don't want to put limits on grants, if they did they could actually correct most of the problems academics are having.
All NIH grants should only be accepted under the condition that the PI/institution:
-Limit # of grad students and postdocs on a grant.
-Pay the postdocs a wage comensurate with their skill level (80k, not 40k)
-University overhead is capped at RR% of the grant
-Professors can only pull XX% of their salaries from a grant and the institution is required to pay the rest

If they can require you to share your constructs on work done with your NIH grant, why can't those rules be expanded?
I'm sure my ideas are bad, but the NIH doesn't even have BAD idea...they seem to have none(when it comes to dealing with the economics of science).

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10. lol on June 17, 2014 10:52 AM writes...

Pfizer tactics adopted by academia?

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11. milkshake on June 17, 2014 11:03 AM writes...

Scripps bureaucracy is staggering. I am not sure if things would improve by merging with USC though. With regards to Scripps Florida, the financial situation has been grim there for at least 6 years - I think they will be left to fend for themselves, unless private donors or the Florida government helps. A merger of Scripps Florida would be possible with Florida Atlantic Uni and it would be a total disaster - this happened before, to Harbor Branch Oceanographic institute after it run out of funding.

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12. Quintus on June 17, 2014 11:07 AM writes...

I wonder if this is one of the reasons why KCN departed. Perhaps he got a inkling?

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13. Anon on June 17, 2014 11:14 AM writes...

I can think of 6 million reasons why KCN left and none have to do with USC.

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14. Anonymous on June 17, 2014 11:31 AM writes...

Or Scripps could try to merge with AZ for tax benefits?

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15. anon3 on June 17, 2014 11:56 AM writes...

Pfizer should by Scripps and convert to a nonprofit for tax savings. Better yet, Pfizer should also turn into an academic institution. That way future layoffs would actually be 'mass graduations', something to be celebrated.

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16. ESIMS on June 17, 2014 12:27 PM writes...

@9 Anon
Wishful thinking...

fun fact Scripps doesn't even pay NIH minimum (UCSD & Salk do)

Let's hope the postdocs & PIs profit from the deal

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17. Anon on June 17, 2014 12:28 PM writes...

These guys are already trying. They are funding some academic labs because it is cheaper to pay an academic postdoc than to pay an industrial one (or even a researcher). Plus they get to buy lab supplies at an academic rate (among other incentives), which can be a huge cost savings. Ronald Depinho did something similar down here in Houston where he is trying to make a branch of the university hospital a drug company (except pay his Harvard buddies industry salaries)

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18. Bobby Shaftoe on June 18, 2014 9:43 AM writes...

@14: I just disrupted my entire "smart working" area by laughing out loud at that....

Also @9: Amen, sister/brother!

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19. the-dude on June 18, 2014 10:39 AM writes...

Never thought that no protecting group dude (whatever his name is) would want a Trojan...

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20. Sklave on June 18, 2014 11:19 AM writes...

@9 wonder how much of the overhead goes to pay for other departments infrastructure...english, psych, etc. If you don't have the infrastructure, why fund the project.

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21. thought follower on June 18, 2014 12:07 PM writes...

#9 I completely agree. The NIH needs to get its house in order. I think that would have to start with a change in leadership as I think mediocre is a charitable descriptor for the current group. Rolling back grad student training to pre-doubling NIH$ rates seems a reasonable start. Any potential future shortages of Ph.D. scientists (doubtful-- could be assessed by wage inflation not corporate lobbying) can be quickly ameliorated by immigration. Policies should be focused on getting the "best and brightest" focused on science rather than building research empires at both the institutional and individual lab levels. Right now all the $$$ incentives and rewards accrue to empire building. Research overhead should not be used as source of departmental slush funds and universities need to have more skin in the game. The study sections need to be reformed for example clinical and basic research needs to be re-segregated. If you think your science is really "translational" you should be encouraged/required to fund it through an SBIR/STTR mechanism as forming a company is the only way most things that have translational potential will actually be translated. Both Michael Eisen and Henry Bourne have proposed interesting idea that are worth reading on reforming the NIH biomedical funding debacle.

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22. UCProf on June 18, 2014 2:06 PM writes...

One needs to ask why the neighboring Institutes, Salk and Sanford-Burnham have been so successful at raising private money while Scripps has struck out. It has everything to do with the previous administration's arrogance that antagonized the community of potential benefactors.

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23. trojan-wars on June 18, 2014 7:36 PM writes...

Say what you will about NIH, and the many flaws of the review process, but effort is being made to distribute money based on merit, and merit is decided by scientists. Scripps has more Nature, Science, Cell papers than most institutions, and easily more per investigator - and some of these have been truly seminal - but they come up short on fundraising. Now they may be absorbed by an institution whose distinguishing feature is that it knows how to get money from movie stars. The fault dear colleague is not with these stars, but with ourselves, that we haven't made the case federal funding of medically relevant research. The case is so easy, and so right, so get out there and make it.

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24. EJC on June 18, 2014 9:32 PM writes...

@trojan wars,
total synthesis, brah!

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25. Spiny Norman on June 18, 2014 10:39 PM writes...

"Scripps has more Nature, Science, Cell papers than most institutions…"

And as we all know, counting papers in journals edited by failed scientists is an outstanding way to evaluate scientific merit.!

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26. @trojan-wars on June 19, 2014 6:55 PM writes...

Re: Spiny - Any metric is short hand, but the point is simply that Scripps does outstanding science and that, in the current funding environment, outstanding science is neither necessary nor sufficient to remain viable.

Medical research benefits taxpayers more than any other budget item, is a minuscule fraction of our health care costs, and could dramatically lower those costs. But because our politicians are too short-sighted to grasp this - and we have not done nearly enough to open their minds - we are vulnerable to the whims of wealthy donors who would prefer to buy a basketball team for 2 billion, or give to a college with a football team, than support the highest quality research.

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27. anon on June 19, 2014 8:58 PM writes...

#16: "fun fact Scripps doesn't even pay NIH minimum"

I'm not sure where you are getting your info, but as a Scripps FL PI, I can tell you that every single postdoc in my group, and also every postdoc that I am aware of in ANY other group at the Florida site, makes at least the NIH minimum.

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28. anon§ on June 20, 2014 1:29 AM writes...


"at least the NIH minimum" Ha!
It is exactly the NIH minimum - which doesn't go quite so far in CA.

Postdocs can't really complain too much, as it is a training position, but signing those pre-printed 40 hour week timesheets is a lovely little kick in the balls.

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29. restraint_of_trade on June 20, 2014 7:52 AM writes...

I have to agree with 28. A PI is prevented from competing for the best post-docs with salary, and in fact the NIH guidelines serve to suppress competition nationally. It would be illegal to coordinate a common salary in any other industry. Further, it is totally BS that it is a "training position." My best post-docs teach me more than I teach them. By that standard any non-repetitive job - PI included - is a training position. But post-docs, if you want to be treated better, fight fight fight to increase for the NIH budget, and then change the system. No other way.

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30. chuck D on June 20, 2014 10:14 AM writes...

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31. Anonymous on June 20, 2014 10:15 AM writes...

@16: very unlikely that Scripps does not pay the NIH minimum. These policies are enforced, and any organization that gets NIH funding would be stupid to violate them. It could be the very minimum mandated by NIH, and as @28 said, it does not go far, especially for starting postdocs.

That's not the problem at the root of Scripps demise though. Flat NIH funding is not new, it did not happen today. As UCProf @22 wrote, the neighboring institutions are successful in getting large private donations while Scripps is striking out. The previous administration may be to blame for some of it, but the current leadership does not project much confidence: essentially no philanthropy, mass exodus of top PIs, internal squabbles and feudal wars. Selling out to a university looks like a desperate move that can't possibly solve these problems. A sure sign of identity crisis. Very sad to see.

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32. Jon Snow on June 20, 2014 12:54 PM writes...

"internal squabbles and feudal wars", sounds like wildlings to me...

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33. squabbler on June 20, 2014 2:47 PM writes...

Must disagree with @31. The faculty have never been more united, albeit in their opposition to the USC deal, and are they are desperately trying to retain an identity which they think is well worth preserving. And much actually does abide.

I also wouldn't be too hard on current leadership. An outstanding scientist is not always the kind of fundraiser, politician, investment banker that was needed here. Not sure if most of us sniping would have done better.

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34. anon on June 20, 2014 5:56 PM writes...

Every chair of a department at Scripps has signed a letter to the Scripps president and to the chairman of the board of trustees opposing the USC acquisition. Now what?

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35. ESIMS on June 20, 2014 10:05 PM writes...

I'm not 100% up-to-date, but in La Jolla NIH minimum was not "enforced", but up to the individual PI. If it is "enforced" the institute takes the money from your funds and matches NIH (actual sum in the contract is irrelevant).

hostile takeover? I doubt USC is interested in all PIs anyway, but they have a convergent bioscience center to fill.

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36. PBP guote on June 21, 2014 10:58 AM writes...

From a Palm Beach Post article on-line yesterday, quoting a letter signed by 10 Scripps chairs:

Scientists at the institute responded Friday with a letter outlining their “deepening concerns.”
“We believe that the proposed path with USC would destroy much of what has been built and what we and others in the community value so much,” the scientists said in a letter obtained by The Palm Beach Post. “We understand that institutions like Scripps face serious financial challenges and have to face up to that reality.”
“From the information disseminated so far, the terms of the proposed merger with USC are not even close to what it would take to build faculty support,” the letter said. “From this perspective, the chairs and the faculty as a whole believe that remaining independent is a far better option.”

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37. Jim on June 22, 2014 12:32 AM writes...

So let me see if I understand this correctly - Scripps is struggling financially, while one of the most prolific fundraising Universities in the nation wants to supply them with cash in exchange for the right to call Scripps their own. I'm missing the problem here??.....

I highly doubt USC is looking to commit huge sums of cash in order to destroy Scripps. Change is scary but the status quo sounds scarier.

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38. trojan-wars on June 22, 2014 6:42 AM writes...

Huge sums? …"The terms of the proposed merger with USC are not even close to what it would take to build faculty support"
The right to call Scripps its own? Also known as ownership of Scripps, with implications that many see as far less desirable than belt tightening.

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39. anon on June 22, 2014 8:03 AM writes...

@Jim: If IBM had acquired Apple in the inter-Jobs era when it was struggling, most likely the outcome would have been less favorable. Scripps has enormous upside potential, and financial problems that are transient relative to its 50 year history or even its current IDC base. Once signed, there is no going back, and we have one less - distinctive and exceptional - competitor on the field.

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40. former fl pd on July 6, 2014 6:35 AM writes...

as a former scripps florida postdoc - that place is a f*ing joke. It is hemorrhaging TSRI and florida tax payer's money. TSRI is in trouble not because La Jolla mismanaged their finances, but because of a poor decision by Jeb Bush et al to start scripps florida.....a mistake that has been piled higher and deeper.

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41. yeahright on July 19, 2014 10:57 AM writes...

actually former fl pd, the Florida campus runs a surplus, has very high per laboratory funding, and employs 600 people, which feeds the tax base. I am guessing you didn't have a good experience, but there is a lot of important work going on in both FL and CA, and again FL has no money problems.

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