There was no mistaking the guest of honor at a 16 March event in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen. James Watson, the Nobel laureate who turns 90 this week, was front and center on a red-carpeted stage before an enormous rendering of a futuristic complex dubbed The Cheerland-Watson Center for Life Sciences and Technology, intended to rival prestigious biomedical research centers in the West. Flanking him were local officials, including a vice-mayor of Shenzhen, and the chairman and CEO of China's CheerLand Investment Group, which is bankrolling the effort to launch the center.
Despite the glitzy ceremony, which included an evening-gown clad announcer and a half-day conference on precision medicine, the ambitious effort is raising eyebrows—and doubts. "I left Shenzhen rather pessimistic that the institute would ever be built," says Watson, who wonders whether the necessary funding will materialize. The research agenda is also veering away from what he expected.
The institute's backers insist the project is going forward. "Within 5 years, the center will be having a very strong economic and social impact, not only in China but worldwide," says Liu Ruyin, CheerLand's CEO in Beijing. Modeled after the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) in New York where Watson served more than 4 decades as director, president, and chancellor, the center is supposed to start operations within a year and eventually employ 1000 researchers, Liu says.
Watson got involved in fall 2016, when the head of Cold Spring Harbor Asia, CSHL's outpost in Suzhou, China, led a small delegation to the New York campus. Among the attendees were CheerLand representatives and Fu Xinyuan, a biochemist at the Southern University of Science and Technology (SUSTech) in Shenzhen. Fu was born in China but served on the faculty at Yale University and other U.S. institutions. His dream, he says, was to build an institute in China that would be as international as Yale and Harvard University, with researchers from all over the world. Fu jokes he pointed out to Watson that there was no institute bearing his name, even though one in London is dedicated to Francis Crick, Watson's partner in the discovery of the helical structure of DNA.
Watson was intrigued. "I thought China might be the place to develop cheaper drugs," he says. He also thought that "China may be the future, so I wanted to see it."
CheerLand stepped forward as a benefactor. Founded in 2012 by a group of Chinese investors in the British Virgin Islands, CheerLand has real estate holdings and biotech and health care investments in the United States and China. It has forged partnerships with research institutions, notably a precision medicine institute at SUSTech. CheerLand agreed to fly Watson to China and pay him a consulting fee he describes as "commensurate with my status."
Watson visited Shenzhen in April 2017 to see possible sites for the laboratory. After returning home, he wrote Shenzhen authorities—in a letter Fu made available to Science—seeking support for "The James Watson Center for Life Sciences and Technology." Watson wrote that he wanted the center to be the only such institute in China bearing his name. He would serve as "Permanent Honorary Chairman" and lead the center's "conceptualization, design, recruitment, and scientific research strategies."
Shenzhen awarded the nascent institute land rights to 16 hectares for 30 years. But misunderstandings arose. Watson thought the center would focus on cancer drug discovery. But an announcement on the website of Shenzhen's Dapeng New District, where the center is located, makes one mention of cancer cell immunotherapy, while identifying "precision medicine" as a main focus. Aside from the land, Watson says his name "hasn't drawn any money from Shenzhen."
Fu says Watson was "a little naïve," in his expectations, and that Shenzhen will want stronger evidence of an economic benefit before committing more money.
Liu says he envisions a nonprofit research effort with government support, but with another arm that would commercialize results for investors. He says CheerLand is putting up $45 million for the first phase of construction and recruitment. But that is just an initial investment that will help raise money from other parties, says John Ma, director of investment at CheerLand's New York City office. "We are confident that the Shenzhen government will help." (Science was unable to reach Shenzhen officials for confirmation.)
The Cheerland-Watson Center will need a lot of help to live up to Liu's dream of making it "bigger than Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory." Li Guanglei, a CheerLand official handling government relations, says they are applying for two grants from the Shenzhen municipal government that could bring in up to $6 million annually for research over 5 years, and are continuing to negotiate for unrestricted ongoing support. For comparison, CSHL has a staff of about 1100 and in 2017 spent $148 million on its research and educational activities.
"I wish these people luck," says Watson, who will keep working with CheerLand for the time being. But "I don't think this particular effort is going to happen unless somebody comes forward with a lot of money."
With reporting by Bian Huihui.