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Salk Institute Names New Head

The revolving door at the top of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, took another spin last week with the appointment of neuroscientist Richard Murphy as president and CEO. Murphy, director of the Montreal Neurological Institute, will become Salk's fourth chief executive in 4 years when he takes up the reins on 1 October. Murphy says his main job will be to raise enough money to keep the endowment-poor research institute in the scientific big leagues.

Founded in 1960 by polio vaccine developer Jonas Salk, the institute has become a dominant player in molecular biology and genetics. But Salk executives have had a difficult time translating scientific success into long-term financial health. Part of the problem is that Salk, dedicated exclusively to research, does not teach graduate students and is therefore not blessed with generous alumni. Its endowment is one-tenth the size of similar institutions such as the Rockefeller University in New York City, notes Charles Stevens, a Salk neuroscientist. And large endowments allow top-tier research institutes to pay for expensive equipment such as gene chip arrays for genetics and nuclear magnetic resonance machines for structural biology, says Salk molecular biologist Tony Hunter.

The institute's financial health has been improving. The two most recent directors--Salk structural biologist Thomas Pollard and current CEO Frederick Rentschler--managed to increase Salk's endowment from under $50 million in 1996 to $120 million today. Still, the institute isn't wealthy enough to provide much salary support for its 54 faculty members and it's at a disadvantage in recruiting, Stevens says.

Hunter, Pollard, and others are optimistic that Murphy can keep Salk in the race. "It's a terrific selection," Pollard says. Murphy has already proved his cash-gathering skills; he says he raised more than $25 million during his 8-year tenure at the Montreal Neurological Institute. And while Salk's scientific luster doesn't need much polishing, Hunter hopes that Murphy's arrival will also stop the revolving door. "We would love to have someone who sticks around for a while."

With reporting by Wayne Kondro in Ottawa.

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