Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, based on Long Island, N.Y., has a long history in the world of biomedical research. It’s where Barbara McClintock made her famed discovery of transposons, or “jumping genes,” and where DNA co-discoverer James Watson was long employed.
More recently, the nonprofit research center played a major role in the Human Genome Project and launched the preprint server bioRxiv.
The lab’s president and CEO, Bruce Stillman, sat down with STAT this week to share his thoughts on everything from research funding to President Trump to open-access preprint publishing.
Below is a condensed version of the conversation, edited for clarity.
Have you heard anything from the National Institutes of Health about a reduction in funding?
Most of the people at the NIH I’ve talked to believe that Congress is not going to go along with the administration. Now, there’s an issue of whether Congress will be able to pass a budget. Given what’s going on in Washington at the moment, I have concerns about that. And if they don’t, well, we’re going to be under a permanent continuing resolution. That’s not good for science. It’s not good for the NIH.
I believe there’s a lot of bipartisan support in Congress for science in general, and particularly for the NIH. I’m a bit concerned about the National Science Foundation. And I’m certainly concerned about the Department of Energy. I think, in the end, sense will prevail.
If you had an audience with the president, what would you tell him about why science is important and why not to cut the NIH budget?
One of my favorite things to do, and I was doing it on the plane as I was coming up here, is to read biographies from American history. And I’m reading a book about Andrew Jackson now. Some people have claimed Trump is like him — but he’s not.
I would tell him to think about history. And the legacy. Because I don’t think he’s thinking about it. Nor is Sean Spicer, to be quite honest with you.
The administration has taken aim at the NIH spending on ‘indirect costs.’ How would you make the case for to the NIH to pay for indirect costs?
“Indirect cost” is a complete misnomer. Most of what is called indirect cost is direct cost. The NIH decided, over the years, to move things from “direct cost” to “indirect cost.” For instance, all computing used to be a direct cost. I remember, there was a line item on your grant for computing under direct costs. That got moved over to indirect costs because it was very hard to separate scientific computing from the infrastructure of computing, so they made it all, quote, indirect costs.
What changes might be coming to bioRxiv?
We’re getting a big increase in the number of papers. At the moment we’ve published about 9,000 articles on there. These are PDFs. The goal down the road is to publish 100,000 articles or more a year. And that’s going to take a lot of infrastructure. And we don’t want them as PDFs, we want them as fully searchable documents.
There are so many journals now. I mean, who gets to read all this stuff? We want one-stop shopping. And I won’t want one-stop shopping in a Pubmed-type way, not as stodgy.
Some scientists are calling for a second human genome project — to write the human genome from scratch. Do you see your laboratory being involved in that? Do you think that’s the next big thing?
I’m not a fan of that. I think the idea of trying to develop a synthetic organism is actually quite interesting, and I don’t think everybody should be doing it. It’s really expensive to do. It’s not obvious what you should be doing to do that.
It’s more like engineering rather than I would call hypothesis-driven science. Although I think it’s worth doing, I don’t think everybody should do it, so no, we’re not going to jump into that.
What is your sense of President Trump’s basic view of science?
I don’t think Donald Trump’s interested in science. That’s OK. But I think what worries me more is not what Donald Trump thinks, but what people surrounding him think. I don’t think they care about science, but I think they care a lot more about just not having government do anything except maybe defense. This is a very somewhat Jeffersonian view of small government.
That’s what’s driving all of this. I don’t think it’s anti-science. I just think it’s this whole desire to get government out of everything.
What is Cold Spring Harbor planning to do for the March for Science? Are you planning on encouraging scientists to go? Are you yourself planning to go?
We support the march. I was a little bit apprehensive at first, but once I saw the principles they listed on their website, they’ve perfectly reasonable principles. But we’re not going to tell or encourage people to go down to Washington.
These things can backfire, and you never know how the people entrenched in the White House will take this. They could see it as being an anti-administration march. They probably will. I hope it’s a peaceful march.
I hope it will be like the Women’s March. The Women’s March, I think, was a huge success because it was nonviolent and it just brought up lots and lots of issues that got national discussion. I hope it is a success.
So, are you going?
No. If I had the time to go and walk around Washington, just go for a stroll around Washington, I would, but I don’t have the time.