Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Meeting Phil Sharp

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity go to a Science Policy Initiative-sponsored lunch with Phil Sharp, a Nobel Prize winner (1993, discovery of gene splicing). He talked about his connection with public policy and a new initiative for cross-disciplinary research...something that MIT pioneers and hopes that the rest of the world will take note of how it's done here. In particular, he's helping to push legislation that views four pieces of technology essential to the world's survival in the next century:

-personal medicine
-producing clean energy
-agricultural concerns and feeding 8.4 billion people that will live on Earth in the next 20 years
-carbon sequestration

All are interconnected, and that is exactly the point. Between improving the educational system, reforming health care, introducing bills which encourage sustainability...all of it ties into these goals, and why Obama has quite the few years ahead of him.

Some other interesting tidbits: John F. Kennedy wanted the headquarters of NASA to be in his hometown of Boston, Massachusetts, so a large parcel of industrial land was razed right next to MIT's campus. Then he was assassinated, and Lyndon B. Johnson became the president...a president from Texas. Houston became the new home to NASA.

This left a lot of land open near what is now the area around Kendall Square, something that became the new home to the biotech industry. Actually, the other reason biotech flourished here in Cambridge was due to the genetic revolution and ensuing public panic about DNA and genetic engineering and creating super monsters, etc...because of this, Cambridge, home to both Harvard and MIT, realized that it had to create a means for the public to be heard and for official city-based policies to be put into place regarding research which dealt with DNA and cloning. This resulted in a comprehensive understanding of what was permitted, what was not, effectively regulations that were far ahead of their time. Thus, when start-ups began appearing, Cambridge became a natural home since all of the policies were in place and ready to be followed. Since then, it has become one of the top cities in the country for biotech. As given by Forbes:

San Diego (number 1, which surprised me)
Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill
San Jose
Washington DC
San Fransisco (also surprised me...I thought that Boston and SF were pretty close)
Los Angeles/Long Beach

Also---why doesn't MIT do plant research? A core concept is that private universities like MIT require 60% overhead, while public universities only require 25% overhead.

So, if you're at MIT and awarded a 1 million dollar grant from, say, the National Science Foundation, the total check would be for 1.6 million. The other $600,000 would be allotted for operating costs, environmental safety, and facilities. If you were at a public university and awarded that same grant, the total check would be for 1.25 million (with the 250,000 going towards operating costs).

The difference between grants from the National Science Foundation and the Department of Agriculture is that agricultural grants only pay 25% overhead...so it is left to the person who applied for the grant to give up some of their winnings to pay the difference.

So...if you were at MIT and awarded an agricultural grant for 1 million dollars, you would have to give the university 350,000 to make up for the lost overhead charges, which makes the grant less worthwhile to try and apply for. If you're at a pubic university (which is more than likely also a land grant institution), this isn't a problem...which is why all plant things are done at land grant universities. Or they're done at places like Cargil and Monsanto. Interesting, isn't it?

1 comment:

Rick L said...

Interesting, and a great means of supporting research at places like the UofM. (at the cost of your University...)