Published online 1 March 2011 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2011.129

News: Q&A

'I'm basically still a lab rat'

Departing Scripps president defends commercial activity after 25 years in the role.

LernerRichard Lerner, president of the Scripps Research Institute.ROBERT L. AZMITIA/KRT/Newscom

On 20 February, the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, announced that Richard Lerner, the institute's president for 25 years, will step down from his post next January. Biochemist Michael Marletta from the University of California, Berkeley, will be his successor. Lerner told Nature how he helped to transform Scripps into a research powerhouse by tripling its size, spearheading deals with pharmaceutical giants such as Pfizer and opening a second Scripps campus in Jupiter, Florida.

How has science changed since you started out?

The analytical tools are so much more powerful, so that's meant huge advances in, for instance, drug design. And because of combinatorial antibody libraries you can isolate any antibody you want without needing animals.

On the negative side, we've sort of got a kit mentality, where everything is done by buying kits. That's fine for most things, but sometimes knowing reagents and what they do helps you design better experiments. We're also in an era when there's a lot more doing than thinking. We're doing a lot of cataloguing. And maybe before you write War and Peace, you need a dictionary. But it would be nice to make the outline of War and Peace first.

How have you contributed to Scripps's evolution?

When we decided to build a chemistry department, we hired chemists one after the other until we felt we had a great chemistry department. That would be difficult to do in a university because the academic senate would say, you just hired two chemists; now it's time for a Drosophila geneticist. We build units until we have the critical mass we think we need to perform, and that's very difficult to do in universities.

You said in 2006 that you would cease leadership activities this year. What motivated the plan?

I'm basically still a lab rat, and I began to resent the time away from the lab.

What benefits has Florida gained through the opening of Scripps Florida?

We have raised US$200 million in research money — we brought in $45 million dollars last year — and we have 397 full-time employees. And we were a critical factor in attracting Max Planck [a German network of research institutes] to go there.

Critics have objected to the close relationships you have forged with companies, such as the first-rights deals that allow companies to develop a portion of the discoveries that come out of Scripps, despite the reliance of Scripps on public funding. What value have the taxpayers got out of such deals?

I think that criticism died off quite a while ago. Certainly, in an era of restricted funding everybody's trying to do rights deals, because money is tight. At a place like Scripps, we don't have a medical school or a hospital and we don't have alumni, so we have limited places we can go for money, and the fact that the pharmaceutical industry likes what we do makes it an obvious place to go. So for us, it was necessary.

Those who said we shouldn't do rights deals want us to remain barefoot and pregnant. The people who didn't want us to do first-rights deals were the people who were enjoying great largesse from the state or whomever, but the state was not going to pay our salaries.

You are one of the highest-paid executives of a non-profit organization. How do you justify your salary?

I don't think that's true, because if you look at the salaries of my counterparts at other institutions, they are far greater than mine.

You're making more than a million dollars a year.

If you look at the mathematics of a 4% raise over 25 years, it's sort of accumulated. And it's far less than at lots of places, and comparable to my counterparts everywhere. I probably have donated more money to Scripps than they ever paid me.

You have amassed a considerable fortune by developing products such as the antibody Humira and by sitting on corporate boards. How do you feel the increased commercial activity of academic scientists is changing the culture of science?

I think that the scientific community has an obligation to see that what we discover benefits mankind. If you look at Francis Collins [director of the US National Institutes of Health (NIH)] today, he's saying that the NIH needs to make drugs, because it's not happening fast enough. So the world has changed. The academic community must get involved. If we don't, the taxpayers are not going to look kindly upon us.

Even when the taxpayers fund research that gets turned into expensive drugs?

That's not a question for me; that's a question for big pharma.

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But you and other scientists do the taxpayer-funded work that leads to the development of these drugs.

But big pharma spends a billion dollars shepherding a drug through clinical trials and the Food and Drug Administration, so they own it at that point — not me.

What are your ambitions for the rest of your scientific career?

I am very interested in using combinatorial antibody library approaches to understand the origins of the antibody repertoire. You never know where you're going to be led, but I envision in the near term making superior libraries and superior screening and selection systems. To me, biology is like archaeology — you dig in the ruins of evolution, and the cleverer the trick of evolution you find, the better the experiment is. If you're in chemistry, if you think you understand something, you have to make it. That's the ultimate proof of the pudding.

What challenges does Scripps face in the future?

Operating in uncertain financial times. The only thing we can do is try to do the best science we can, and hope that we get our piece of the action. 

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