It has been a year and a half since Trudeau's Board of Trustees voted to keep the 128-year-old biomedical research laboratory in Saranac Lake.
They rejected a plan negotiated in secret that would have moved the institute to a research park under development in Florida.
Since then, the institute has faced budgets cuts, layoffs and the departure of key research teams. The lab has been without a director for nearly a year.
Sources at the lab, and internal documents, suggest that Trudeau has reached a tipping point. The institute's survival may hinge on whether it can adapt to a changing funding and scientific climate.
As Chris Knight reports, Trudeau officials say they have a long-term vision, but questions and doubts remain.
Editor's note: How viable is Trudeau Institute in Saranac Lake, and how bad is morale, really? Those are some questions prompted by Chris Knight and Brian Mann's two-part investigative series, and the reporters are working on stories to expand on those topics. They have documentation, such as an April 2011 staff satisfaction survey and studies recommending relocation and comparing sites, but they want to hear from more people inside and outside Trudeau. If you have something to say, contact Mann at firstname.lastname@example.org or Knight email@example.com or 518-891-2600 ext. 24.
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Editor's Note: This two-part investigative report on the history and future of Trudeau Institute was reported in partnership by NCPR and the Adirondack Daily Enterprise.
Speaking three days after Trudeau’s board voted to stay in Saranac Lake, then-institute President and Director David Woodland said the decision would end months of anxiety and speculation about Trudeau’s future.
“So I think there’s tremendous relief by everybody, and I’m very excited about that,” he said at the time.
But almost a year and a half later, the institute’s future remains uncertain.
Key research teams have departed, as have several top executives, including Woodland. The director’s post has been empty for nearly a year. The loss of a half-dozen well-funded faculty over the past four years has been a big financial hit, and new research grants for Trudeau’s remaining faculty have been hard to come by.
Meanwhile, staff morale remains low amid concerns about Trudeau’s financial stability and its leadership, according to sources at the institute. Rumors are even circulating that institute will close at the end of the year, which Trudeau officials deny.
“We will be around for a good period of time, and we’re working to make that forever,” said Trudeau Board Chairman Benjamin Brewster.
Despite that reassurance, troubling questions continue to swirl about Trudeau’s long-term health.
Woodland, who resigned amid a dispute with the institute’s board last year, said the business model that has sustained the institute for years – a basic research organization primarily funded by money from the federal government — simply doesn’t work anymore.
“One of the key reasons is the federal funding levels have dropped to a point where it’s very difficult to sustain an organization like Trudeau doing basic research,” he said.
Woodland also said there the current trend in science is toward research that has more practical applications, like clinical trials, which are difficult to set up for an organization based in the Adirondacks, further eroding its ability to attract funding.
“So, I think that the business model for an independent research organization like Trudeau in a location like the Adirondacks is essentially broken.”
Brewster said Trudeau’s leadership recognizes that “science is apparently changing” and that Trudeau has its limits in Saranac Lake. He said a “strategic vision” for the institute that addresses these and other key issues is being implemented.
When asked for specifics on the plan, however, Brewster could only name a few highlights such as building collaborations with the State University of New York and other research facilities, and diversifying Trudeau’s revenue base. Trudeau has recently started a for-profit contract research organization that will work with biotech firms, pharmaceutical companies and academic researchers.
“We’re always looking for other opportunities to increase our income here,” saidLarry Johnson, Trudeau’s interim chief operating officer. “We’re not just standing pat by any means.”
Meanwhile, Trudeau has a more immediate need. It’s been without a president and director since Woodland left in October.
Lee Keet, a former Trudeau board member, said the position needs to be filled as soon as possible to bring an end to what he described as months of turmoil, confusion and fear.
“The delaying in hiring a new chief executive is a problem,” Keet said. “The highest priority for Trudeau is to get a new chief executive. I believe things will calm down and stabilize once such a person is selected.”
Brewster said several candidates for the job have been interviewed, and that the board is leaning toward a director with more of a business background.
Keet believes a director with business experience can do a better job of tapping into large foundations for funding, something he said Trudeau hasn’t done well in the past.
The financial troubles, the faculty departures and the leadership vacuum at Trudeau over the past year and a half have been painful developments for a facility that was expanding and adding new research teams as recently as 2005.
Trudeau is also the anchor of a “biotech cluster” that’s been a focus of the village of Saranac Lake’s economic development efforts.
State Senator Betty Little called the institute a “critical” catalyst to attracting more biotech companies, but acknowledges it will continue to face challenges until it can prove it’s stable.
“It’s been a difficult time for the institute,” Little said. “When you don’t have a director and you’re not raising funds and your not getting and recruiting — my understanding is they have some scientists interested in coming here but I think they need to get that director in place so that people know what they’re coming to, and what the direction and the stability of the institute is.”
Woodland said Trudeau has to evolve or it won’t survive. He compared the circumstances to those of five decades ago, when Frank Trudeau created the institute from the ashes of the shuttered Trudeau Tuberculosis Sanitarium.
“Frank Trudeau did this incredible thing in reinventing the institute, broadening its scope and it became the institute it is today. Inevitably things change, the environment Trudeau finds itself in today has changed and it’s time to reinvent.”
Trudeau’s board of trustees met last week in New York City to discuss the search for a new director and its plan moving forward. Brewster didn’t return several messages this week seeking comment on the extent of those discussions.