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Trudeau at a tipping point

Special report, part 2 of 2: Loss of faculty and funding plus leadership vacuum spark anxiety about future

May 11, 2012
By CHRIS KNIGHT - Senior Staff Writer (cknight@adirondackdailyenterprise.com) , Adirondack Daily Enterprise

SARANAC LAKE - On Jan. 28, 2011, Trudeau Institute's Board of Trustees voted to stay in Saranac Lake, a decision that Trudeau officials said would end months of anxiety about the future of the 128-year-old biomedical research center.

But almost a year-and-a-half later, the institute's future remains just as uncertain.

Key research teams have departed, as have several top executives. The director's post has been empty for nearly a year following the resignation of David Woodland. The loss of a half-dozen well-funded faculty over the past four years has been a big financial hit.

Article Photos

Trudeau Institute
(Promotional photo)

Meanwhile, staff morale remains low amid concerns about Trudeau's financial stability and its leadership, according to those interviewed on background.

Woodland, who now works for a research group in Colorado, said the business model that has sustained Trudeau for years is "essentially broken." He and others close to the institute say it has to evolve or it won't survive, comparing the circumstances to those of five decades ago, when Dr. Frank Trudeau created the institute from the ashes of the shuttered Trudeau Sanitarium, which his grandfather Dr. E.L. Trudeau had begun.

"This is a transitional moment for the institute, just as it was back in the early '60s," Woodland said. "Frank Trudeau did this incredible thing in reinventing the institute, broadening its scope, and it became the institute it is today. Inevitably, things change. The environment Trudeau finds itself in today has changed, and it's time to reinvent."

Fact Box

Editor's note: How viable is Trudeau Institute in Saranac Lake, and how bad is morale, really? Those are some questions prompted by Chris Knight and Brian Mann's two-part investigative series, and the reporters are working on stories to expand on those topics. They have documentation, such as an April 2011 staff satisfaction survey and studies recommending relocation and comparing sites, but they want to hear from more people inside and outside Trudeau. If you have something to say, contact Mann at brian@ncpr.org or Knight at cknight@adirondackdailyenterprise.com or 518-891-2600 ext. 24.

Trudeau officials and board members say they're taking a hard look at the institute's future and say they have a long-term vision. They also are working to fill the director's job as soon as possible. Trudeau board Chairman Benjamin Brewster strongly rejected the idea that Trudeau is facing an imminent financial crisis or that its days are numbered.

"We will be around for a good period of time, and we're working to make that forever, if you will," Brewster said.

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Fundamental shift

Woodland said the Trudeau model - a basic research organization primarily funded by money from the federal government - simply doesn't work anymore.

"One of the key reasons is the federal funding levels have dropped to a point where it's very difficult to sustain an organization doing basic research," he said. "On top of that there are trends in science toward more practical science or translational science (using clinical trials on people rather than animals), and it's very difficult for an organization like Trudeau, which is in the Adirondacks, to really participate in that, and that further erodes its ability to attract the federal funding that it needs.

"I think that the business model for an independent research organization like Trudeau in a location like the Adirondacks is essentially broken, unless there can be some novel approach for bringing in money or some big funder that would step in and fill in the gap."

Woodland hasn't been alone in saying this. The late Ralph Steinman, a former Trudeau board member who won the Nobel Prize last year, told fellow board members something similar in a memo dated March 3, 2010.

"Modern science requires complex instrumentation, highly-specialized expertise and collaboration between scientists from different disciplines," Steinman wrote. "In addition, research funding is moving away from the stand-alone scientist working in isolation at the bench to large 'scientific centers,' which bring together multiple laboratories and organizations around common themes. As time moves on, it is my view that the Trudeau Institute, at its current location, will find it increasingly difficult to compete, and perhaps survive, in this environment."

That assessment was also backed up by a study from the New England Consulting Group, which reviewed the options for Trudeau's future growth and delivered its recommendations at the board's Jan. 28, 2011 meeting. The Enterprise obtained a copy of the confidential report just this week from a former Trudeau employee.

"NECG concludes that the Trudeau at Saranac Lake cannot remain viable in pursuit of its current mission," the report concludes, recommending the board move forward with relocation to another site.

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Cuts, departures

The board strongly rejected the recommendation at that January 2011 meeting, and recommitted the institute to Saranac Lake. But that wasn't the end of Trudeau's troubles. At the same meeting, a 2011 budget was approved that included a 25 percent drop in research revenue, namely because of the loss of federal stimulus funding, and about a dozen scientists and support staff were laid off.

In the months that followed, several key Trudeau faculty left, largely because of disagreements over the the institute's direction. Ed Pearce who was Trudeau's chief scientific officer, and his wife Erika Pearce, moved their research labs to Washington University in St. Louis, Mo.

"They saw the writing on the wall," Woodland said. "They understood these issues I was talking about, that Trudeau is not sustainable, so they left because of those core issues and core problems."

Woodland and his wife, fellow Trudeau faculty member Marcia Blackman, also left, although Woodland says they didn't want to and Blackman is still on the faculty, running her lab from Colorado.

"We had no intent of ever leaving, even after what I thought was the rash decision made by the board," he said. "In the end, I found it too difficult to work with the board, that the board became too micromanaging and there was just no way in the end that I could stay there."

Over the past year, Trudeau also lost two other top executives who were key players in the potential relocation of the institute - Nelson Pleau and Terry Gach - though the circumstances surrounding their departures are unclear.

Today, Trudeau has just over 100 employees, about a third less than it had just five years ago. As a result of that exodus, last week the institute put two vacant apartment buildings it owns on Ampersand Avenue, which it used to house scientists and their families, up for sale.

And the departures may not be over. Sources inside and close to Trudeau say other research institutes are trying to recruit away some or all of its current faculty, and that Trudeau's only remaining tuberculosis researcher - Andrea Cooper - is among those considering leaving. Asked about her future this week, Cooper gave an open-ended response.

"I would love to be here, and I would love for everything to be great and to move forward here, and that's what I'm working towards," she said.

Cooper has almost a quarter, or $1.5 million of Trudeau's $6.3 million in active National Institutes of Health grants, which have been the single biggest source of funding for the institute over the years.

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Financial picture

The loss of faculty has been a big financial hit for Trudeau. The Pearces left with a combined $2.1 million in NIH grants.

Woodland's departure didn't hurt Trudeau financially because his grant stayed at the institute, but in the last four years Trudeau has lost four other well-funded faculty: Susan Swain, Richard Dutton, Troy Randall and Frances Lund. As a result, overall NIH grant revenue at Trudeau has plummeted. In 2007, the institute's researchers were awarded $11.4 million in NIH funds for 34 projects, according to a federal database that tracks NIH grant funding. This year, only four projects at Trudeau received NIH awards, for a total of $1.8 million. Two of the four grants went to Cooper.

Making matters worse, the scientists who've remained or who have joined the institute are facing a difficult and shifting NIH funding climate. Five years ago, Trudeau faculty used to carry multiple NIH grants, said Robert North, a former director and faculty member at the institute. Now they're lucky if they have one.

"It's just that the scientific community has increased in size enormously and you have a lot of competition for grants now, and there's limited money," North said. "Without NIH funding, it's extremely difficult to carry on. It's my understanding that a lot of institutes this size are in trouble because of these reasons."

Historically, Trudeau has had a strong endowment, but in recent years it has "eroded," according to Lee Keet, a former Trudeau board member and finance committee chairman whose brother is a current trustee.

"(The endowment) still gives them several more years of runway, which should be enough to get it back on track," Keet said. "But I don't think it's going to be the way it was. The NIH isn't going to suddenly come back with a doubling of grant levels like it did several years ago. The net pool of available grants for new investigation is smaller, and it will probably stay smaller for five years or more, and Trudeau has to reinvent itself in that world."

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Strategic plan?

Brewster said Trudeau's leadership recognizes that "science is apparently changing, and there are certain things that could be done in the Adirondacks, and certain things that at this point in time can't be done (here) probably." He said a "strategic vision" for the institute that addresses these and other key issues was completed about six months ago and is being implemented, "but it's going to take time."

When asked for specifics on the plan, however, Brewster could only name a few highlights such as building collaborations with the State University of New York and other research facilities, serving as an education center for post-doctoral researchers and broadening Trudeau's revenue base.

Asked for an honest assessment of Trudeau's financial picture, Brewster admitted revenues are down but said the institute is taking steps to change that. Although Gach's position, director of institutional advancement, hasn't been filled, Trudeau has hired an outside contractor to do some fundraising work, and it recently started a for-profit contract research organization that will work with biotech firms, pharmaceutical companies and academic researchers.

"We're always looking for other opportunities to increase our income," said Larry Johnson, Trudeau's interim chief operating officer. "We're not just standing pat."

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Leadership

A long-term plan is critical, but Trudeau has a more immediate need. It's been without a president and director since Woodland left in October. Keet said the position needs to be filled as soon as possible to bring an end to what he described as months of turmoil and confusion.

"Without a chief executive, things tend to get pretty messy," he said. "I believe things will calm down and stabilize once such a person is selected. Does that mean there won't be defections between now and the time one is selected? I can't tell you that. If I were betting, I would say that people, if they're given a job opportunity and they can't be reassured that their current job is going to go where they want it to be, might jump ship."

Keet said he and other Trudeau supporters have lobbied the institute's board to pick a new director whose experience lies in business more than science and who can cultivate non-governmental sources of revenue, like large foundations.

"My understanding is they're very close to having such a person, and I think that's an absolutely essential next step to proceed on this path of redefining both the science and the position of the institute," Keet said.

"We are moving forward," Brewster said, "and I think the key decision we are making is finding a new director. I think that director will be somewhat different than prior directors, possibly a director with more of a business background."

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The stakes

The financial troubles, the faculty departures and the leadership vacuum at Trudeau have been painful for a facility that was expanding and adding new research teams as recently as 2005. Even during the recession, Trudeau attracted sizable grants from the NIH, federal stimulus programs and the U.S. military.

The institute has also been widely recognized as a unique and creative campus. As recently as last year, Trudeau was cited in The Scientist magazine as one of the best academic workplaces in the U.S. Its faculty continue to make important contributions to their fields. Just last month, Blackman published research that could help in the treatment and prevention of cancers caused by viruses, and Cooper's lab continues to break ground in tuberculosis research.

Trudeau is also a major local employer and the hoped-for anchor of a "biotech cluster" that's been a focus of the village's economic development efforts. Last year a pair of Lake Placid biotech companies agreed to relocate to Saranac Lake; one of the big attractions of the move, they said, was the idea of being closer to and potentially collaborating with Trudeau Institute.

"Trudeau is very important to us," said state Sen. Betty Little. "The employees there, the whole presence that they bring to our area and the need for them to be there as a catalyst to bring other biotech firms in and try to develop that whole business in that area is critical."

Little said she's working with state and federal representatives to help Trudeau get high-capacity high-speed broadband, modernize its facilities and recruit additional scientists. Last year, Trudeau was awarded $1.2 million through the state's Regional Economic Development Council process to do just that.

"It's been a difficult time for the institute," Little said. "When you don't have a director and you're not raising funds and you're not getting and recruiting - my understanding is they have some scientists interested in coming here, but I think they need to get that director in place so that people know what they're coming to, and what the direction and the stability of the institute is."

Trudeau's board of trustees met last week in New York City to discuss the search for a new director and other issues. Brewster didn't return several messages this week seeking comment on the extent of those discussions.

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North Country Public Radio Adirondack Bureau Chief Brian Mann contributed to this report.

 
 

 

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