Why rehash Trudeau Institute’s travails now?

Today, NCPR and the Adirondack Daily Enterprise launch a two-day investigative report on the behind-the-scenes debate over the future of Trudeau Institute, the bio-research and immunology laboratory in Saranac Lake.

We’ve known since the autumn of 2010 that there was a “strategic planning” effort that included the possibility of moving the facility out of state.  So why we revisit the controversy now?

Sources have been saying off the record to reporters for months that the situation at Trudeau remains fragile, with deep divisions over the future of the institute, which still employs roughly 100 people.

Documents leaked recently by a former staffer gave new insight into the policy differences that sparked those rifts, and the leadership decisions that shaped events behind the scenes.

Memos and other documents indicated that some staff and board members engaged in a concerted effort to keep the effort to move the laboratory to Florida secret for months and even years.

Even after executives traveled to Florida and submitted a formal application for more than $88 million in incentives from officials in Port St. Lucie Florida, it appears that some board members were still kept in the dark.

Those documents also suggest that troubling questions remain about Trudeau’s future.  At stake are dozens of high paying jobs an a facility that anchors Saranac Lake’s fledgling “biotech cluster.”

But Trudeau is also an essential part of the village’s culture.  Founder E.L. Trudeau served as Saranac Lake’s first mayor in the 1800s.

Tomorrow, Chris Knight takes the story forward, looking at the options being considered for Trudeau as the lab works to recover from months of turmoil, budget cuts and internal divisions.

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43 Comments on “Why rehash Trudeau Institute’s travails now?”

  1. Pete Klein says:

    If the geniuses felt the need to move from Lake Placid, I wonder what it says about their intelligence when they were thinking of moving to Florida?
    The Albany area would be better. Any place other than a Red state would be better.

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  2. Brian Mann says:

    Pete –

    It’s funny you say that. One of the places Trudeau execs were considering was North Carolina and it’s been in the back of my mind to wonder how comfortable the institute’s close-knit culture would have been in that state, where same-sex marriages and civil unions were banned this week.

    –Brian, NCPR

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  3. Paul says:

    Brian,

    That site in Kanapolis, NC would have been a poor choice. That campus is not really near the kind of facilities they would need anyway. That campus is more of a ‘real estate’ development than anything (and a pretty empty one at this point). They do have some beautiful empty space there if anyone is interested. It was founded by David Murdoch (Dole Foods). He has put over 600 million dollars into the project.

    NC may be a pretty conservative state in general, but in a place like Research Triangle Park, the Trudeau would probably do very well (despite the surrounding politics).

    As for this story. It does show some serious dis-functionality at the board level. Who was kept in the dark?

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  4. Paul says:

    It is interesting to consider what EL Trudeau might have done in this day and age? If you look at history perhaps he might want the institute wherever it could do the best science and help the most people. If a move was the right thing, and being from NYC, maybe he would have voted for the institute to be down in Manhattan. Maybe at the new Cornell campus on Roosevelt Island?

    Being isolated was, at one time, an asset for the institute. I am not sure that it is today.

    Again ALL the board needs to make these decisions together.

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  5. OnewifeVetNewt says:

    Regarding your title story’s title, “Why rehash Trudeau Institute’s travails now?”, I can’t see why any rational person would debate that it is one worth exploring. The fact that the public, and more important, many Trudeau Board members were kept in the dark for so long is surely important news .
    Likewise, the Institute’s apparently ongoing struggle to survive, never mind prosper, in the North Country is important, if painful to think about, information .

    It makes me wonder how much the Trudeau leadership really cared about Trudeau, and how much they cared about their own personal advancement and glory.

    Congratulations to NCPR and the Daily Enterprise for bringing this to light.

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  6. Paul says:

    “It makes me wonder how much the Trudeau leadership really cared about Trudeau, and how much they cared about their own personal advancement and glory.”

    Newt, what do you mean by this comment?

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 4

  7. oa says:

    Great reporting, Brian, and a good point about North Carolina. And dunno if this is worth looking into, but…
    One of the rumors of why the Laurentian Aerospace project in Plattsburgh has stalled is that the company was seeking a better deal in Florida, which was shopping for businesses to poach as the Space Shuttle wound down. No idea if this is true, but interesting to look into whether Florida is actively hunting for New York-based projects and companies. Or if this brain drain is all instigated up here.

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  8. Paul says:

    oa, Of course Florida is actively hunting for ANY project or company. That is good policy, no big secret there.

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  9. PNElba says:

    …how much they cared about their own personal advancement and glory.

    This statement hits very close to the truth. The medical research community has changed drastically over the last 35 years. It now consists of the 1% – those large labs that are funded by NIH almost without question and the 99% of labs consisting of a principal investigator, a technician, and maybe a post-doc or two that must spend most of their time hoping for a 1 in 10 chance of getting NIH funding. Getting funding is a lot more about self-promotion and connections these days, rather than good science.

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  10. Brian Mann says:

    Trudeau was seeking roughly $88 million from investors and government officials in Florida. I wish we could know what kind of incentive package might have been offered by New York state, philanthropists here, and Federal officials to expand and improve the laboratory in Saranac Lake. Money isn’t the entirety of the problem, though my interviews found that outdated buildings and facilities were a major stumbling block. I think it’s fair to say that pursuing those incentives now, after this period of turmoil, will be considerably more difficult.

    –Brian, NCPR

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  11. Paul says:

    Brian, Trudeau runs a contract research service out of the institute. I wonder how they can do this and maintain their tax free status? Maybe this should be outsourced to a local commercial entity.

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  12. PNElba says:

    Money isn’t the entirety of the problem……

    When the chances of getting NIH funding to run your laboratory are less than 1 in 10, and overhead from the grants is what is used to run the Institute, I would say money is most of the problem.

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  13. wakeup says:

    OK please tell me why politics has anything to do with Trudeau? Maybe I’m missing something or is this just another reason to bash North Carolina?

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 2

  14. oa says:

    Politics has everything to do with this stuff, wakeup, from government-approved corporate welfare to attract companies, which Florida was using (and it may be good general policy, Paul, but I’m asking if Florida is specifically targeting New York) to states telling whole populations of people they’re not welcome, like North Carolina just did. Almost immediately, people in NC were wondering if the gay-marriage vote would discourage companies from expanding or moving there, or even pulling out, which has happened in Arizona in reaction to that state’s immigration laws.

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  15. Paul says:

    oa, help me out what is “government-approved corporate welfare”? What specific info do you have on this deal? Could you share that with us? Thanks.

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 4

  16. Paul says:

    “When the chances of getting NIH funding to run your laboratory are less than 1 in 10″

    PNELba, the success rate for NIH grants in 2011 was twice that (20.1%).

    http://report.nih.gov/FileLink.aspx?rid=558

    But it is still too competitive for sure. NSF isn’t any better. If you take out stimulus funds it is a little under 20%. But as you know it has always been competitive. The problem is now the funding is pretty flat and the submissions are up.

    http://report.nih.gov/nihdatabook/index.aspx

    Having an affiliated academic medical center would probably help this institute with its competitiveness on NIH funding. I think this is more about that than any kind of “glory”?

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  17. PNElba says:

    Paul –

    Good research on your part but your first link doesn’t state any success rate percentage. Actually, 1 in 10 grant funding success rate was a bit too optimistic. It’s probably more like 1 in 14. I suggest you look up the difference between grant success rate and “payline” – two very different things.

    http://nexus.od.nih.gov/all/2011/02/15/paylines-percentiles-success-rates/

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  18. Paul says:

    Thanks for the info. It looks like “success rate” is a better measure since “payline” can have missing data.

    Here is the success rate listed for 2011 from the link I provided:

    All NIH (grants reviewed) 67,641 (grants funded) 13,590 (success rate) 20.1% (total funding)$5,199,704,826

    It doesn’t matter it stinks either way!

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  19. mervel says:

    Did the institute do something wrong or illegal? I guess I am confused about why the normal internal politics of any organization kind of gets treated like a coverup or something? But maybe I am really missing something?

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  20. Jeff says:

    I liked the details in the article because it divulges how some events like this take place. To read that the director wanted a two headed institution is humorous. I remember Piper Aircraft had its original facility in central Pennsylvania and another in Vero Beach, Florida. Lock Haven now has a museum and Vero Beach has jobs.

    Unless there is a federal prohibition of state and local governments offering tax breaks to draw business, competition continue will be hot. I don’t believe that prohibition would be constitutionally possible unless maybe someone waved the commerce clause banner. Look at Boeing moving into South Carolina. BMW, Honda, Toyota, Subaru have not come to New York and GM left. Hmmm, mostly moves to red states.

    Tradeau’s directors were looking at lack of ammenities in a rural community. The mantra these days is medicine and education will grow and the North Country Community College isn’t on the radar screen of those folks. They probably didn’t think there were nice enough accomodations at the Lake Clear airport.

    Of course if the wealthy are heavily taxed they won’t be around to Dole out some money to invest in development. More money for NIH?

    It is remarkable to me such a facility has lasted so long in the boondocks.

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 2

  21. Walker says:

    Well mervel, when a subset of Trudeau’s board feels the need to keep the rest of the board and all of the staff in the dark while they plan to uproot the organization, it’s pretty plain that they thought that what they were planning would be pretty unpopular. That kind of behavior is often labeled a conspiracy.

    I think PNElba’s 11:10am post about “their own personal advancement and glory” has it about right. Consider this: “In the weeks that followed, Woodland stated publicly that he was “thrilled” with the decision and expressed confidence that the laboratory had a promising future in its current location. But he departed abruptly six months later and now acknowledges that he felt Trudeau’s board made a serious mistake in not pursuing opportunities to relocate, and in limiting his own ability to transform the institute.”

    There’s duplicity in much of this story. They concocted a cover story about splitting the organization into two units, an approach that was a sop to those who felt loyal to the village, a sop which they knew perfectly well would prove unworkable.

    So no, they did nothing illegal. But by the way they went about it, it is clear that they knew it flew in the face of everything the Institute had stood for. They wanted to turn it into a big money operation. That is not what Trudeau was ever about.

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  22. Walker says:

    Paul asks “Trudeau runs a contract research service out of the institute. I wonder how they can do this and maintain their tax free status?”

    Paul, tax exempt universities do this sort of thing all the time. Tax exemption merely requires that the institution as a whole not turn a profit. All you have to do is pay your management team and top scientists a huge salary, and you can easily ensure that you don’t show a profit. Look at your average hospital these days. There’s a whole lot of folk living high on the hog from “non-profit” institutions these days.

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  23. PNElba says:

    “Tradeau’s directors were looking at lack of ammenities in a rural community.”

    What lack of ammenities? For the type of research Trudeau is famous for (in vivo infectious disease immunology) they have every ammenity they need. The problem, as I see it, is lack of funding support for murine models of infectious disease – something that will come back to bite us in the butt in the future.

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  24. mervel says:

    It is kind of interesting, but you know it sounds like standard stuff, sounds like Clarkson’s board or SLU’s board or Corning’s, all of the little internal politics that go along with large organizations.

    I hope this is not based on disgruntled ex employees, who it looks may have illegally taken documents that belong to Trudeau?

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  25. PNElba says:

    And, Walker beat me to the main point. How would you feel if you were a member of a board and a subset of that board kept you in the dark about something. That is inexcusable and the board members kept in the dark should resign in protest.

    Speaking of the Trudeau board, it’s never been a very successful group of people. A place like Trudeau needs very wealthy board members who have very wealthy friends willing to help financially support the Institute.

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  26. PNElba says:

    Sorry to disagree Paul, but to the principle investigator “success rate” means nothing if you don’t get grant funds. It’s all about the payline.

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  27. Walker says:

    Yes, mervel, it is pretty much the “standard stuff” of “little internal politics.” But I think it is well to hold it up to the light of day in the hope that those prone to indulging in such behavior will be embarrassed enough to become gun-shy about practices that require secrecy.

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  28. mervel says:

    Yeah I mean I am not against it, I would think twice about being on their board though if it is a political football. Is the board compensated?

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  29. PNElba says:

    I’m fairly sure the board is not compensated. The purpose of such a board is to raise funds – something they have never been very successful at.

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  30. mervel says:

    The North Country is strange that way. Of the NFP boards I have worked with and for, most are in the human services field, none of them raised any money, they were usually just friends of the Ed that worked in the same field.

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  31. Paul says:

    “Sorry to disagree Paul” No problem. It just seems that if the “pay line” stats include things like re-submissions (more than once often) that it makes the numbers looks worse than they are. But like I said the main point, that I think we agree on, is that there isn’t enough funding. Too many submissions and not enough funds.

    The board should help guide fundraising and participate 100% but they also have other important duties. Those duties cannot be met if they are not all well informed. Often the management might want to put an idea together in a coherent way before they present to the board, and even run it past some subset of the board first (say a committee set up to mange facilities), but two years before the full board found out what was in the works, that is ridiculous.

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  32. Paul says:

    “Yes, mervel, it is pretty much the “standard stuff” of “little internal politics.””

    I don’t think so. I have worked with and been on several similar boards. This is not normal. It’s weird. They have some serious problems.

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  33. Paul says:

    “That is inexcusable and the board members kept in the dark should resign in protest.”

    Maybe, I think the board should toss the ones that didn’t perform their duties of candor with the full board. This must be a violation of the bylaws. I guess I need tomorrows story to see if it was a majority holding the minority in the dark.

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  34. oa says:

    Paul,
    In answer to your question about “government-approved corporate welfare,” see this from the Port St. Lucie economic development site:
    http://www.youredc.com/html/state_local_incentives.asp
    Port St. Lucie is what Trudeau was negotiating with, accdg to Brian’s story. See also the government-approved corporate welfare from New York State that was already doled out to Trudeau for a $9.6 million renovation, in Brian’s story.
    This is what passes for industrial policy in this country. New York sends its tax dollars to red states, who then take that money and lure away New York businesses. To compete, New York has to give welfare to companies, and so on, and so on…

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  35. Paul says:

    oa, thanks for the info. But again here is my question.

    “See also the government-approved corporate welfare from New York State that was already doled out to Trudeau for a $9.6 million renovation, in Brian’s story.”

    Why do you call that corporate welfare? By “corporate” welfare do you mean public money for a not-for-profit corporation? If so, I get it. So you don’t support public funds going to not-for-profits?

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  36. Paul says:

    As bad as we perceive this, if this story was in a larger city it would certainly not make the front page.

    We have institutions here where I am (not a major city) that employ about twice what Trudeau does and they are hardly on the local radar. This is all relative.

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  37. Paul says:

    That is one of the things I love about about small towns. The dirty laundry often gets aired out where it normally would not!

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  38. PNElba says:

    “Too many submissions and not enough funds.”

    That is sort of correct.

    I really wish people had a better understanding of just how difficult it is to get NIH funding for basic medical research.

    First, the principle investigators at Trudeau Institute basically have to find funding to pay themselves and their research staff. If funding dries up, they, along with their staff, are out of jobs.

    Second, the principle investigator now spends a good 90% of their time writing grants, not actually doing research. In many cases, they have only an academic understanding of the techniques being used in their labs.

    Third, when one applies for an NIH grant it takes about 9 months to hear whether it got a successful score or not. Then about another 9 months before the money shows up.

    Fourth, the really big lab groups have multiple grants – sometimes 3 or 4 or even more. This takes potential funding away from smaller labs.

    Back in the late 70’s, a grant could be funded with a score of 350 (out of 500). Today you need less than a 140 in most cases (lower score = better) to get funded (if there is enough money).

    Grants are typically funded for 5 year increments these days. To fund a small research lab for 5 years it takes about one and a quarter million dollars (not including overhead which would add another 900,000 dollars or so), especially if you use mice (which everyone at Trudeau does). After personnel costs, animal care eats up a huge proportion of the grant.

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  39. Paul says:

    Why would anyone in their right mind give the PNElba 8:40am comment a “thumbs down”?? I thought we were getting rid of that silly feature.

    Anyway, yes what I should have said is not enough funds period!

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  40. scratchy says:

    “Unless there is a federal prohibition of state and local governments offering tax breaks to draw business, competition continue will be hot. I don’t believe that prohibition would be constitutionally possible unless maybe someone waved the commerce clause banner.”

    Actually, one Appellate Court ruled that an Ohio corporate welfare plan for Chrysler was unconstitutional under the Commerce Clause for interefering with interstate commerce. The Supreme Court didnt directly rule on this issue though they did reverse the result of the Appellate by finding that the individuals bringing the suit didnt have standing.

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  41. oa says:

    Paul asks: “Why do you call that corporate welfare?”
    Because that’s what it is. It’s government money going to a corporation to keep it going or enable it to make more money. I’m not casting judgment on whether it’s a good place for our welfare to go, but the biggest problem with our national discourse right now is an eagerness to call government payments to people “welfare” and a disdain for calling government payments to corporate entities and institutions the same thing.
    When it’s business, it’s called a “public-private partnership.” But it’s not called that when the recipient is a person working at Wal-Mart receiving food stamps.
    Sauce should be the same whether goose or gander.

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  42. Paul says:

    I think it was Ronald Regan that one time called scientists receiving federal grants “white coated welfare recipients”?

    oa, it sounds like you are making the same point?

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  43. oa says:

    Yes, Paul, though more broadly, to include Brooks Brothered welfare recipients, as well.

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