Former banker Sanford Weill transformed the Weill Cornell Medical College in New York with more than half-a-billion in donations in recent years. Now he is pivoting to the West Coast, pledging $185 million to create a neuroscience institute at the University of California, San Francisco.
The gift from the the man who once led Citigroup and his wife, Joan, is the largest in UCSF history and among the largest anywhere dedicated to the study of brain disease and psychiatric disorders.
“Neurosciences appear to be way behind the discovery and science” in fields such as cancer and cardiology, and as lifespans lengthen, “more people are going to be facing these neurodegenerative diseases,” Sanford Weill said in explaining his decision to underwrite a brain science center.
In a telephone interview, he called UCSF, already a global leader in neurosciences, an ideal location to help break down divisions between research and patient care.
The Weill Institute for Neurosciences will include both laboratories and clinics for treating patients when it opens in late 2019. The Weills’ gift will also support faculty and postdoctoral fellows.
The facility will house 45 principal scientists from neurology, neurosciences, psychiatry, engineering, and other specialties, reflecting the primary goal of uniting and cross-pollinating researchers from diverse fields to advance cures more rapidly.
Dr. Stephen L. Hauser, director of the Weill Institute, called the predominant “silo” effect — related but separately conducted research — in studies of the brain an “accident of history” that must be corrected.
“Problems that we thought were disparate have become similar. For example, understanding sleep disorders becomes important for traumatic brain injury, concussion, Parkinson’s disease, and multiple sclerosis,” Hauser said in an interview.
The institute will include genomics experts, computer scientists, engineers, and chemical biologists who will work together to see how sleep interacts with a wide range of neurological conditions. Experts not traditionally considered integral to neurosciences — such as big-data analysts and ethicists — will help tie together new findings, said Hauser, who also chairs the UCSF Department of Neurology.
Bringing together clinicians and researchers, Weill said, creates a culture of discovery meant to streamline the process for converting basic science into better clinical outcomes.
This will include a circadian rhythms clinic for sleep disorders, clinics to treat migraines and dementia, and a facility to use deep brain stimulation for movement disorders such as Parkinson’s disease.
Robert Desimone, who directs the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said the UCSF venture would likely have national impact on the field, and make the campus a magnet for federal grants to augment its private donations. In the past year, philanthropists including the Weills have committed more than $500 million for neurosciences work at UCSF, according to campus officials.
Desimone said the integrative approach taken by UCSF echoes that of his own center.
“Neuroscience has matured,” folding in genomics, optics, and other fields, Desimone said. “The kinds of studies that are needed are not the kinds of studies a single person can do in their kitchen anymore. … You are seeing physiologists collaborating with computer scientists and computational modelers to try to make sense of all the data.”
The Weills are among a wave of billionaires who have made life sciences their primary charitable cause. Just last week, former Facebook executive Sean Parker donated $250 million to cancer immunotherapy research. He created a national consortium of researchers coordinated by UCSF.
Weill praised Parker’s approach as complementary to his own model of funding individual medical centers — first providing more than $600 million to Weill Cornell Medicine, that university’s medical school and research center, and now UCSF — to help them grow and adapt.
Weill made his fortune during the financial industry’s boom in the decades ahead of the market collapse in 2008. Like other billionaires recently have done, he and his wife have committed to donating most of their fortune during their lifetimes.
Last year, that process hit some turbulence involving the tiny, financially strapped Paul Smith’s College in northern New York, which Joan Weill has served as a trustee and financial benefactor.
She offered the college an additional $20 million, on the condition that the name be changed to Joan Weill-Paul Smith’s College. A court later ruled that the school charter could not be altered to allow the name change, and the Weills decided not to donate the funds — a response that offended some alumni.
Stacy Palmer, editor of the Chronicle of Philanthropy, said that while the controversy might seem to reflect poorly on the Weills, naming rights — such as those conferred for the UCSF and Cornell donations — can inspire large gifts from other wealthy individuals considering their public legacies.
“It reminds people that philanthropy made this happen, particularly in the science arena, where people think the federal government is funding all of it,” she said, despite the declining availability of public funds in many technical fields.