Monday, May 4, 2009 | Sitting atop the cliffs of La Jolla, featuring Louis I. Kahn architecture and boasting of a small group of elite researchers, the Salk Institute for Biological Studies has, since its beginnings in the 1960s, been the very definition of an institution set apart — not subject to the rough and tumble of the so-called real world.

But not even the ivory tower has escaped the wrath of the Great Recession. Income from the institute’s endowments is down, one renowned scientist has gone public with the possibility that he might lose his lab and others are wondering whether a new policy directed at older faculty members is in response to the economic turmoil.

The most startling news came in recent weeks from Stephen Heinemann, one of Salk’s most well-known and longest-serving faculty members. Heinemann, a molecular neurobiologist told The Scientist that Salk administrators had slashed his funding and told him to make cuts in his lab’s operating costs. Heinemann, according to the publication, laid off six people in his lab.

Heinemann refused to go into the specifics of his situation when reached by voiceofsandiego.org, but he did not dispute the facts reported by the magazine. “Yes I am worried about my lab,” Heinemann said. “But there are 6,000 labs across the country in my situation.”

In reality, Heinemann is in worse shape than most. For one thing, his is an endowed position. Endowments are generally heavily invested in stocks because they fund their beneficiaries entirely through investment income, and most were hit hard when the market crashed last year. Harvard University, for example, had lost a reported $8 billion as of December.

Also working against Heinemann is his status as a post-tenured professor, which means he does not have a long-term employment contract with the institute.

Last week Salk officially changed its policy regarding post-tenured faculty. Under the new policy, a faculty member who has reached the end of his or her tenure (which runs about 22 years) and wants to continue working will go have to go in front of a faculty review board. The board will decide the length of the professor’s ongoing contract with the institute, between one and five years, and the amount of funding each will receive for their lab.

Some Salk insiders said the new policy appears to be a move by the administration to cut costs in difficult economic times, and that older faculty members are being targeted. “They have recently come down on the age factor more than in the past,” said David Schubert, a 65-year-old neurobiologist. “This is the first time it has been made an issue as far as a policy of institute.”

Others share Schubert’s view, but did not want to be named.

Officials at another of San Diego’s major non-university research organizations, the Burnham Institute for Medical Research, also acknowledged investment losses, but said that Burnham relies very little on endowments. Officials from The Scripps Research Institute would not make themselves available for comment.

Marsha Chandler, Salk’s chief operating officer, said the institute relies on endowments for about 7 percent of its $100 million annual budget. And she acknowledged that Salk’s endowment income is down, and that the administration has cut costs by conserving energy, cutting overtime and closing down the week after Christmas. “It has made us look very carefully at everything we are doing and force us to look for ways to cut back that don’t affect the science,” Chandler said.

However, Chandler said the new post-tenure policy has long been in the works and is not a reaction to the current economic climate. “These issues are not joined,” she said. “[Talk concerning] the tenure guidelines happened quite awhile before the downturn. They represent dealing with the demographics of Salk.”

Chandler would not comment on Heinemann’s situation, calling it a personnel matter. She described the new policy regarding post-tenured faculty as a way to formalize what has been an ad hoc process for dealing with older faculty members, several of whom have been with the institute since it was established in the 1960s.

“It is not so much that they are getting older, but their science is winding down,” Chandler said. “It is a review of whether their science is keeping up based on the opinion of their colleagues and various other measures.”

Salk neuroscientist Fred Gage sides with Chandler’s view of the policy, but he does tie it to the bad economy. “These are financially difficult times,” Gage said. “And all institutions are confronting a decrease in available funds. The way Salk is doing it is to work with each of the faculty members in a very transparent way to optimize the available resources.”

Chandler said a majority of faculty members have welcomed the policy, especially those who are reaching the end of their tenure and want clearer rules. “The reason it got so much support is that it is crucial to Salk’s vitality. You need new people, and if resources are going toward people who are winding down, then we don’t have that vitality.”

Heinemann’s lab seems to fit Chandler’s description. It takes up a lot of space and has had an annual budget of more than $500,000, according to The Scientist. Heinemann, however, made the argument to the magazine that two of Salk’s endowments come from intellectual property that was developed in his lab.

Schubert emphasized that a scientist’s age should in no way determine his or her funding. “I know people in their 80s who have fully functioning labs,” he said. “I am 65 and going as strong as ever, so I don’t think there is a problem.”

Please contact David Washburn directly at david.washburn@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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