BioPerspectives

Feb 24, 2009

Thanks a lot, Bernie Madoff!

  • Bernard Madoff is not a name you want to hear nor bring up in conversation with academic institutions anytime soon; add those institutions to a long list of people who have been wronged and robbed by the man with the plan.

    Another unsung victim is biomedical research. Why, you might ask and rightly so. A lot of foundations that have been supporting biomedical research, such as the Picower foundation, have essentially lost their underlying funding, with the losses being too heavy to carry on the day to day work. The Picower Institute for Learning and Memory at MIT, which was funded by the Picowers in 2002 with a $50 million grant, is now scaling back projects that depended on that money.

    Mel Berman, a prominent NYC philanthropy CEO, says, Long-term, it's billions of dollars of funding that won't get made, because the endowments of so many foundations have dried up. In fact, many individuals who were generous donors lost significant sums with Madoff, such as those who funded buildings at hospitals, long-term programs at charities, and high-risk research.

    For example, Jerome Fisher, the founder of the Nine West shoe-store chain, lost millions in the Madoff scam. He and his wife, Anne, pledged $50 million to the University of Pennsylvania last June for a new biomedical research center aimed at converting laboratory discoveries into medical therapies.

    Another magnate, Mort Zuckerman, chairman of Boston Properties and publisher of The Daily News, pledged $100 million to New York's Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in 2006. The donor says his charitable trust, which had some of its money in a fund that invested with Madoff, lost $30 million, or 10% of its total value.

    For healthcare causes, one of the more worrisome casualties of the Madoff scam is the Picower Foundation. Its investment portfolio had a market value of about $950 million, according to 2007 tax returns. That year it gave millions to health-related causes.

    Why is all this important you might ask, since the NIH has more than 10 times that endowment available as pure funds? The answer is startling and stark—much of this money supported the type of basic, high-risk research not typically funded by the NIH, which chooses research projects that have already shown promising results, scientists say.

    The Picower Foundation, on the other hand, valued novelty, approach, and potential impact, according to their website. In December, researchers received an email from Mrs. Picower explaining that the foundation was ceasing its grant-making.


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