A Conversation with Richard Murphy
Richard A. Murphy, president/CEO of The Salk Institute for Biological Studies, joined the Institute in October 2000 after serving for eight years as the director of the Montreal Neurological Institute (MNI), where he strengthened that Institute’s molecular and cellular neuroscience programs, hiring more than 20 faculty members with M.D.'s or Ph.D’s., while establishing new research groups in neuronal survival and excitability. He presided over the construction of the Molson Center for Molecular Medicine and Canada’s first Brain Tumor Research Center.
As a neuroscientist, Murphy investigated proteins called neurotrophins that are produced by cells in the brain and in the peripheral nervous system. Neurotrophins promote the growth and survival of nerve cells, and induce structural and chemical changes in brain synapses that appear to play a role in memory. Murphy and his colleagues studied how neurotrophins are produced within brain nerve cells as well as the mechanisms that regulate their release.
Light: What were your original goals upon joining the Salk Institute, and how well do you feel you accomplished those goals?
Murphy: My original goals were to bring to Salk some of the strengths that I had brought to other institutions that I had run. It was clear to me Salk needed to expand its visibility in San Diego. It needed to restructure its board of trustees. When I took over the Institute there was only one or two people on the board from San Diego, and we put in place a policy now where a third of our trustees need to come from San Diego, a third national and a third international.
It was clear we needed to ensure the future of the Institute by bringing in more young people. We’ve hired now 16 young people, a turnover of about 25 percent of our faculty. We wanted to bring in new technologies to make sure that the Institute was always on the cutting edge.
The other thing the Institute needed to do was increase its endowment. The endowment of Salk has grown from $107 million in 2003 to more than $170 million in four years. We’ve added an investment committee to the Board which has invested the money wisely.
Light: Have your goals for the Institute changed significantly now, from those that you originally set for Salk?
Murphy: The scientific goals of the Institute are always changing, and they change based upon where we think we have opportunities for transformative science, changing the direction for where science is going. In 2001, we did a strategic plan for the Institute that told us we needed new young people, that we needed to expand our strength in certain areas of science. For example, we needed to build a new unit in chemistry, which the Institute had never had.
By 2007, most of that first strategic plan was complete. It was a great blueprint for what we did over the last five or six years. A new strategic plan was just approved by the Board in April this year. That plan is going to have a whole new set of goals for us. Stem cells are going to become a major new area for us.
We’re also bringing in people who are experts in aging now, and over the next five years that’s going to be a major interest.
Light: What will be the goals, the focus of stem cell research?
Murphy: It will depend upon what our scientists want to do. The Institute doesn’t tell scientists what to do. It’s got to come from their soul. One of the things stem cells allows us to do is to study human cell biology using human cells, not mouse or rat cells.
The other thing that’s exciting is really understanding the controls that regulate how a stem cell does its thing. How do stem cells make the decision to become a muscle cell, liver cell or brain cell? What are the genetic controls of that process?
At Salk there’s always an interest in asking fundamental, biological questions and creating knowledge which is then going to give us insight. If we could understand how stem cells decide to be one tissue or another, we’re going to learn lessons about how those tissues not only function when they’re healthy, but how they function when they’re not healthy.
Light: Where will funding for future stem cell research come from?
Murphy: The California Initiative is about to release $3 billion. The science we’re going to get out of it is going to be incredibly exciting. Right now, with the stem-cell field in this country, the volume is turned down, because there’s not enough money to do the kind of research we want to do. What this money will do will be to turn the volume up in California.
Light: What are the primary challenges of presiding over a research institute like Salk?
Murphy: Funding has been a major issue. Recruitment is a major issue. We’ve got a very expensive housing market here. But we’ve been very successful in attracting the people we wanted.
We’ve reached out to the community more than we had done before. That has made them feel more a part of the institution than they did before.
Light: How have changes in National Institute of Health (NIH) funding affected the way Salk Institute approaches fund-raising?
Murphy: About 70 percent of our budget comes from NIH funding. The NIH budget the last three years has been essentially flat, whereas inflation has been about 3.5 percent. Our dollars are going much less far than they would otherwise.
Has it changed our fund-raising? Yes, because what it does is it has gotten us to seek other sources of funding so we can keep our labs going full blast. The savings that can be generated by improving prevention of diseases is immense.
Light: What is the current status of Salk Institute’s expansion plans?
Murphy: We know we will still be challenged by people who don’t want to lose their view of the ocean. But we are very hopeful that once we get to the City Council, that we will prevail. You’ve got to be able to expand to remain competitive in today’s world. We don’t want to be outside of La Jolla. We want to expand in La Jolla. We know we can do it in a way that’s environmentally sound, in a way that respects the original design of the campus that Jonas (Salk) and Louis Kahn had, and we can do it in a way that serves all of the environmental needs, and the needs of the Institute as well.
Light: With stem cell research funding finally starting to get allocated, and the perception that it is being accepted as a scientific issue, as opposed to a political one, do you think this will be something that helps Salk Institute to become a household name like the Mayo Clinic?
Murphy: I like to think that Salk is already a household name. It’s certainly a household name in the scientific world. What Salk will do will be to contribute first-rate science that will be added to the world’s knowledge of what stem cells do.
Light: Does stem cell research have the potential for medical breakthroughs like the Salk anti-polio vaccine?
Murphy: Absolutely. There’s no question about it. But one of the things we don’t want to do is hype it, because we’ve got a lot a long way to go to know how to use stem cells to understand disease, to treat disease. It’s going to require many years. The National Academy of Science says more than 100 million people in the United States alone could benefit from stem cell science, if it develops the way we hope it will develop.
Right now, the volume is turned down, the research is not getting done as aggressively as it should. Hopefully, with California money and federal policies changing with the new election, that will be a tremendous stimulus for the field. I think you’ll see lots of people getting in the field, and progress is going to come much more quickly than it has. The federal government, because of the policies of this administration, has basically limited progress. I hope that changes.
Light: You have championed Salk’s “collaborative” research methods, including work with some of the other institutes along La Jolla Mesa. How important is collaboration in the research that Salk scientists are working on?
Murphy: San Diego is really unusual in the fact there is true collaboration between organizations on the Mesa. Our scientists easily collaborate with those at Scripps and Burnham and UCSD. There’s probably more communication here than any other place I’ve ever seen.
It’s also important that each of these institutions maintain their own characters.Each one of them, being slightly different, brings strength to the table. That makes the San Diego scene much stronger. San Diego is recognized worldwide as a hub of collaboration and of good science and they point to the different institutions doing different things very well.
Light: How would you define your Salk legacy? What do you feel are your most important accomplishments, during your nearly seven-year tenure as Salk Institute president?
Murphy: What I hope my legacy is is the recruiting of new scientists. It’s building the board in a way that’s been very helpful to the organization. It’s been to expand our visibility and involvement in San Diego. We wanted to create an environment where the scientists can thrive, and the scientists have thrived. We’ve been getting better with the arrival of the new young people. There’s a whole bunch of scientific initiatives going on that are very exciting. I’d like to think we played some role in getting all of that going.
Light: What changes do you see in the Institute on the horizon?
Murphy: I don’t think there will be a change of direction. The direction will always be looking for areas of science at the Institute that can make significant contributions that will essentially improve human health. That’s the mission Jonas began 45 years ago. That will still be the mission.
Light: When are you leaving Salk? What are your future plans?
Murphy: July 1. We’re moving back to Boston. We have children and grandchildren there, and we want to be around for their growing up.