Basel Institute for Immunology. Credit: Bea Pfeiffer

By now the news has filtered through to immunologists of all stripes: the Basel Institute for Immunology (BII) is closed. Clearly this marks the end of an era, and perhaps, the beginning of the next. Within a few weeks of each other immunologists have a new journal, Nature Immunology, for housing the best of immunology and hear that an institute, which has housed and nurtured some of the finest work in the field, is going out of existence.

For years the Basel Institute was a bastion of all that is good and productive in immunology. Although funded generously and exclusively by Roche, the management had the foresight to give investigators free reign in their endeavors. Out of this collaboration between the pharmaceutical industry and basic science was born an atmosphere where curiosity was cultivated and immunology flourished.

The organization of the Basel Institute was most unusual and served the members well, especially initially. For their tenures of five years or so, members could devote themselves completely to their research. Resources were allocated equally to the investigators and internal collaboration was encouraged.

The fateful decision by Roche to close BII is not the first such news that the biology community, especially in Europe, has heard. It was only 1997 when Glaxo Wellcome withdrew their support of the Geneva Biomedical Institute, a premier center for molecular biology. Is this a reflection of waning interest in basic science on the part of pharmaceutical companies? An alternative explanation could be that it reflects the broader choices available to both sponsor and scientist and the changing climate in which support for basic science is now evaluated.

In 1968, when the BII was founded, there was a firm boundary between academic research and product development. The introduction of the BII gave immunologists a new venue—an academic setting supported by a company. The community felt that this was an experiment well worth replicating. But the Basel Institute remained a singularity.

Over the next decade, the line that so firmly separated biology in academia from biology in industry eroded. By 1978 Cetus and Genentech in California and Biogen in Massachusetts had been founded by entrepreneurial scientists from top-ranked universities. Of the many biotech enterprises that have followed, some concentrate on the commercialization of an initial major discovery, such as using the cloning of hepatitis B to develop a subunit vaccine at Chiron. Others, like Tularik, pick major themes (in this case small molecules for gene regulation) in which to focus their basic research, and eventually develop products that evolve from their investigations.

Another form of support for basic research that blurs the line is the mega-agreement, so-called because of the huge sums that are involved. For example, the agreements between Massachusetts General Hospital (a Harvard University affiliate) and Shiseido or Bristol-Meyers-Squibb that commenced about 10 years ago, were in the US$30–90 million range. Of course, most grants from industry are not that large, but universities and industry, at least in the United States, seem to have reached an understanding as to the ground rules. The Bayh-Dole act of 1980 allows universities to patent the results of government-funded research, which caused a remarkable up-swing in patents granted to universities. Various arrange-ments were then devised that enable fruitful technology-transfer and licensing arrangements with industry.

Governments worldwide are making it more attractive for academic-industry liaisons to support basic, as well as applied, research. Besides government and industry support, the large philanthropic agencies, such as the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Wellcome Trust and the Ludwig Institute, have increased their commitments and made substantial contributions to biomedical research in general and immunology in particular.

Thus, over the lifespan of the Basel Institute there has been a sea-change in the available alternatives for supporting basic research. Although we bid a fond farewell to the BII, we should celebrate this diversity. The healthy state of today's immunology research is evidence that the added complexity better reflects the complex goals of a maturing field and affords improved support for the entire immunological enterprise.