© 2016 by Allan Dyen-Shapiro

  • Allan Dyen-Shapiro

On the demise of DuPont Central Research and the Implications for America's role in science funding


With the impending merger of DuPont with Dow, the decision has been made to largely dismantle the DuPont's research complex in Wilmington, Delaware. In the 1960s and 1970s, this complex, functioning with a very university-like atmosphere, gave the world most of its advances in polymer chemistry. In the ensuing decades, a lot of great science of various sorts went on here.

Before I say anything controversial, let me put my cards on the table and reveal my background so readers can assess my bias. In 1997, when I interviewed for and later took a position at the University of Delaware, I spent one full day at DuPont. For an academic job interview, this was quite odd, especially as I was offered two different jobs that day by DuPont managers. The explanation: the Ag school was old-fashioned, not yet in step with modern biotechnology. When I first met with the DuPonters after accepting the job at Delaware, they were about as accommodating as a company could be. They just wanted functioning labs in the neighborhood with whom they could interact. With virtually no strings, they offered me direct monetary support of my lab, free reign (with a contractors pass to enter at will) of their facilities, the permission to use their equipment and co-publish with their scientists, and much access to information. Over the next few years, I spoke with nearly a dozen groups at DuPont, including those who didn't generally speak with each other, so amazingly, I was at times a source of information for them about their own company. We even set up the first Ph.D. program in a biology-related field in this country in which it was possible to do your Ph.D. with a scientist in industry acting as advisor. (Sure, this was common in Europe at the time, and it was common in other fields in the US like engineering, but for biology in the US it was unprecedented).

So, why were they willing to support me so generously with virtually no strings attached? Because they realized that what was limiting plant biotech was basic science. They realized practically nothing could be done in terms of creating useful products without these advances. At the time, many of their groups were doing things more basic than academic groups were. Also, there was a high level of idealism at the time. Those who have never been on the inside might find this hard to believe, but when I talked with managers up to the VIP level, they revelled in the opportunity to discuss basic science and were driven largely by a desire to help feed the world with its expanding population. For that brief moment in history, what was cool basic science (how does plant cell biology work), what was the stumbling block toward applications that would make ag biotech companies money, and what was a very important thing toward helping alleviate some of the world's misery and move towards a more just world were precisely and exactly the same thing.

And they felt (communicating their feelings often) that they got their money's worth out of me. Not only did I interact with them and co-publish with them (helping keep their senior scientists happy), but I also trained many DuPont technicians in my courses. In-house training for a tech company is ridiculously expensive. Even paying top dollar, having a university do their needed teaching is the least costly way to do things (and having DuPont pay the university top dollar, the most expensive tuition charged, didn't exactly make me unpopular with university administration).

But then, in something that would clearly take a different post (I taught an entire course on what went wrong in the biotech industry, taught largely as a political science course, when I was an Associate Professor at Florida Gulf Coast University), things fell apart at DuPont. I was one of the last of the biologists they cut loose (they had been providing the biggest chunk of my lab's funding). Although they even managed to help me get a small foundation grant to try to bridge things, this loss just before I went up for tenure (combined with the USDA program denying an extension of my funding, even though my progress was described as outstanding, because their budget had been cut so much that they stopped funding this sort of basic research, and also combined with the state of Delaware abolishing it's research support program) led ultimately to the end of my science career.

So, no hard feelings at all toward DuPont. Managers up to the vice president level fought to preserve their funding of me, even as they knew it would have meant having to fire their own employees, but to no avail. Things had just collapsed too far in the broader world of plant biotech.

Gee, that was a long-winded way of identifying my bias, wasn't it?

Anyway, one of the problems that led to their demise was the need to look long-term. Wall Street likes to see quarterly profits. When they were led by chemical engineers, the idea of projects that would take 10 years to pan out wasn't a problem. Then they brought in executives from companies like US Airways. The stockholders became the focus. The short term focus. And that killed things. I'm grossly oversimplifying--there were lots of other problems--but as you will all stop reading if I ramble, I'll focus on this one: the perceived exigencies of capital as a force destroyed a venerable American research institution.

Were this problem limited to DuPont, I wouldn't be writing this post. Actually, DuPont was thought to be one of the most protected places for corporate research. Nobody would kill the goose that laid the golden egg, would they? I recall when Novartis closed down their Agricultural Discovery Unit--it was supposed to be pie in the sky research, with ten-year appointments guaranteed. They closed down after six.

And start-ups were worse. In the early years of the new millenium, I was housed in a complex that also included many start-up companies (as well as DuPont's genomics facility, the only major biology basic science group located off of the central research campus), and I got to know those guys quite well. I recall meeting with the head of one, a former executive from a nearby chemical company at the head of it. His idea was stupid. He hadn't even really thought through it. He was hiring people, later to fire them all, based on what sounded good to him, despite his complete lack of education in the area.

Capital ruled. The needs and preferences of the workers, the product being made, the benefit to consumers--nada in terms of importance.

A parallel story for comparison: anyone remember the company A Better Place? I thought back in 2008 when I first heard of them that they had a brilliant idea that would be transformative. They wanted to set up robotic battery changing stations that in four minutes could swap out a battery on an electric car--about the same amount of time it takes to fill up an internal combustion car with gas. They would build lots of solar and wind power and charge up the electric grid. They'd place stations densely enough that they would completely replace our current system of transportation.

They were based in Palo Alto. They wanted to work with American car companies, test the product in America and employ Americans. Well, the American car companies refused to work with them--why bother when they were flush with money--so they partnered with Nissan and Pugeot. And in the Bush era, they wanted to do their piloting in Hawaii and San Francisco, but the governments wouldn't budge. So they moved the company to Tel Aviv and got the countries of Israel, Denmark and Australia to agree to be the test sites. And they opened. And people liked them. And it looked like it would succeed.

But then they couldn't get next round financing. And the project died. Something that could have led us well on the way to a carbon free future, and made lots of money for capitalists at the same time, is dead, because of the power of big capital.

Sense a theme here? We are ruled by Wall Street. Because several generations ago somebody managed to pull off theft or other illegal activity (Bush family seed capital came from illegally laundering money for the Nazis during WWII--if you look close enough, you'll see that Balzac was right: behind every great fortune there is a great crime), we have empowered parasites to control us.

And with DuPont Central Research following the fate of other great private research powerhouses such as the Roche Institute (that's dating me; those younger than me probably never heard of them), we've reached a point where technology-based business in the US is near-impossible except in fields with quick turnaround (like writing an app). Anything that needs a private research capacity is impossible.

But that's okay, we fund public research with our tax dollars, right? Well, when I know folks at the DuPont-Merck joint venture in medicine, they described their work as scouring the academic literature for stuff they could steal quickly, doing three months of research, and then filing a patent. But public support for research has dwindled. In ag, it was alway pitiful, and it's gotten worse; it's not like we have problems like greening, citrus tristeza or cvc destroying the Florida orange juice crop, now do we (note the intense sarcasm). But even in biomedical sciences, it has gotten way tougher to fund a lab. When the control of Congress flipped in the first term of Obama's presidency, one of the first things they did was a 25% across the board cut in science funding. And things got cut more this year!

But it's worse than this. Post-9-1-1, much money was shunted into war research and "homeland security." I knew one group that as a joke put in a one-half million dollar grant to the Department of Defense for the stupidest idea they could come up with. They got a call from a general asking if they received five times the amount of money they asked for, could they do it faster. They completely lost my respect when they took the money.

I later knew virologists who said their work was possible only because of DOD funding. So if you wanted to be a virologist at anything but the top institutions, you needed to work on war.

And it's had bad effects on American higher education. In the 90s, money was never plentiful, but it was sufficiently available that regional universities has great people doing great science. At this point, if you are going to a top institution, you aren't being educated by anyone doing the best science. And those who are getting money at the flagship state institutions are generally protected with 0% teaching contracts.

So, academia will not be bailing out are research hole. This has happened before, in the 80s recession. But at that point Western Europe was pre-occupied with the beginnings of unification, Russia was falling apart, and China wasn't even on the research map. With very little competition, the US fixed itself.

No more. A visiting professor from a regional university in China who spent six months in my lab returned to huge influxes of government money so that she could do her research precisely right with long time lines and little government supervision. China thought that getting good research going at regional universities was important, because education was important. Didn't we used to think that?

But there's plenty of money to bail out banks. Banks that now give multimillion dollar bonuses to top managers who should probably be in jail.

Bottom line: what's happened at DuPont is the last gasp admission that what used to be called capitalism in this country is a failure, at least as far as research-intensive businesses go.

So, we could continue our national decline, and probably still delay falling apart almost to the point where the ecological collapse happens due to our unwillingness to deal with global environmental issues (again, another post, probably many, is in order).

Or we could reign in capital. Capital needs to be regarded as a public good, not a private resource. The one percenters need to be stripped of their money, and it needs to be doled out for the benefit of the society as a whole.

This won't happen under those comfortable with the current system. Like Obama. Sure, he had a great idea early in his presidency to fund risky research on transformative energy technologies. Those businesses were supposed to fail. The government was supposed to lose money, to seed the future. But when Solyndra went bust, the Republicans made so much political gain out of it, that the program switched focus away from risky investments. Even including the losses at Solyndra, the government ended up making a lot of money out of the program. But that wasn't supposed to happen. We were supposed to lose money and gain a future. We didn't.

If capital is allowed to continue to be controlled by the few, the future is quite dystopic. It's time to get away from slogans and nineteenth century ideologies. Capital is a public resource. Demand that. Or be satisfied with the current system here that looks a lot like medieval feudalism collapsing into complete chaos at some point.

So, that was my first post in the category "futurism." Comments welcome, both on the website on which I housed the blog or on Facebook. But please try to avoid knee-jerk recitation of platitudes--the focus here is what the world will look like, not on current-day politics.

For those especially interested, I have some short stories I hope to sell eventually (I'm trying) that address these issues. In my novel-in-progress, I start after the second US Civil War. China is running the world economically. I'm betting on that as our future. What do you think?


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