Northern California Days 1 & 2

Arrived in San Francisco yesterday. A great city and one I hope to come back to with a bit more time on my hands! I’ve met some really interesting people here too, so all-in-all, worth coming!

Yesterday I met the Chief Communications Officer of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, which was set up by the state to provide funds for research that uses stem cells. The first round of grants focused on human embryonic stem cells, but later rounds were broader. They also fund the building of physical facilities, because scientists can’t use federal equipment – he said that at Harvard equipment was tagged with different colours to let them know what they could and couldn’t use! The centre is funded from a bond system that was approved by the electorate by 59%. When I asked why people were in favour, the view was it was 70% because they saw a value for the future and 30% to give a bloody nose to the federal government! Their aim is to have one therapy developed by the centre accepted by the end of the 10 year cycle and 3 more ready for clinical trials. While their grants are predominantly to universities at the moment, it is envisaged that in the future they will be more and more to industry.

In terms of the human embryonic stem cells they use, they are all derived from supernumerary IVF embryos, like we do at European level. There are very strong ethical standards on what can be used, but he did mention that there are fewer supernumerary embryos here and more multiple births, because there is such a pressure to produce children in IVF.

On the public information side, they are going to work with the grant recipients on getting information out there and will develop the pedagogic/communication side of their website. They’re also forming a partnership with the Exploratorium, the SF science museum, to develop their stem cell information.

So really interesting talking to him and seeing the take they have on this sensitive issue.

Today I hopped on the CalTrain down to Stanford university. Because I am an idiot, i not only left my phone at the hotel, but the very detailed instructions on how to get to my meetings, so thank goodness for a) reading through things the night before and b) a photographic memory! It got me to the meeting there, which was with a senior member of Stanford’s office of technology licensing, just about the best in the country. Astonishingly, practically the first thing he said was that it’s a mistake for people in those jobs in universities to put emphasis on making money. The secret of success is to look at it as a way of getting inventions to the public through proper management of the ownership of inventions. But a pure money focus is counter-productive. He had resisted suggestions to move their centre into the general university management structure because it was not something that would work with a performance system based on income. I think that’s a main point for us in Europe to remember when dealing with this and also many of the places here – that’s the attitude that’s going to avoid the backlash that is brewing.

There are a lot of parallels between this work and the science communication side. You need to get the trust of the scientists, so that they come to you in good time with the appropriate information, and you need to be able to demonstrate to them then it is in their interests, maybe in terms of consulting opportunities or attracting research sponsorship.

A lot of the income that is generated (and they are very successful, for all their broader focus) goes back into the university, not just to the inventors themselves but to their departments and schools. This is another part of the model that could translate into the European situation. The other element of success that was emphasised was patience – if you look at the successful tech transfer offices in the US, they’re all older than 20 eyars. The bulk of money being made now is off inventions from the 1970s.

It was like Tech Transfer 101, and absolutely fascinating. Stanford was an astonishing place – created in 1891 as a tribute to the teenage son of Mr and Mrs Stanford, who died, so they decided to use their fortune to help other people’s children. The university is a small town, with a shuttle bus, a train station, shopping centres, housing… They gave me a little factbook and I found something very interesting in there as part of my women in science interest. For 2007 the proportion of men and women were:

Undergrad level: 49% men, 51% women

Graduate level: 64% men, 36% women

Faculty: 76% men, 24% women

It does beg the question, where are the role models for the young women students? and if you look at the race figures the pattern is similar. Will things ever change?

From Stanford it was the CalTrain and then underground to get to Berkeley. Another lovely campus, though much smaller scale. There I met the Associate Vice-Chancellor for Research, Bob Price. Great discussion with him, firstly on the reasons why they won the BP energy centre, their productive collaborations with industry, and the contradictory attitudes to science within US society about science.

He totally agreed with Jeff Nesbitt at the NSF (see Washington Day 2) that industry were strong supporters of basic science because they valued its input to innovation and the workforce development role of universities.

Once again constraints for the US system were the “decrepit” state of the public school system, coupled with the problems that were growing in attracting and retaining foreign talent.

When I asked about the increasingly interdisciplinary nature of research his first point was that the architecture of the new buildings is planned to encourage interdisciplinary work. Once again this issue of architecture as part of policy comes up – I really think there’s something super important to look at here! Do decision-makers, “leaders” if you like, really take that into account? They obviously did at Starbucks, and Oak Ridge, but I can think of other places where the architecture wasn’t so conducive to what was supposed to be going on in the building.

Oof, sorry, marathon entry! But several great meetings and I wanted to make sure I did them justice!

Published by Antonia

I'm a British citizen and European Union official, who lives in Brussels again after 6 years in London and 8 in Melbourne. My blog(s) reflect my interests in the EU, yarncrafts, organisations and dog ownership.

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