By Robert Strausberg
Canny businessmen, by definition, keep a keen eye on the uses of their capital. When they take risks—which the best do often—they prefer to fail quickly and move on than to pour money into seemingly Sisyphean projects. But if the exceptions justify this rule in commerce, they tend to define the titans in philanthropy. And the late Daniel K. Ludwig, the founder of Ludwig Cancer Research, was certainly the latter.
An up-by-the-bootstraps magnate and a staple on Forbes’ list of billionaires, Mr. Ludwig decided in 1971 to enlist in the War on Cancer. Not one to dawdle, he established the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research and endowed it with most of his substantial international holdings. Mr. Ludwig had no delusions about the challenge posed by cancer; he did not expect swift returns on his investment. In fact, he admitted the “conquest of this frightful disease is not yet in sight.” But he did not doubt that it would, someday, be conquered—if the challenge was approached properly. That approach, he thought, was to invest in the right people and let them do what they do best. I believe Mr. Ludwig’s vision remains of great relevance to all funders of biomedical research.
Upon his death in 1992, almost the entire balance of Mr. Ludwig’s estate was dedicated to cancer research, leading to the establishment of Ludwig Centers for cancer research at six prestigious US research institutions. The many Branches directly supported by the Institute internationally, along with these Centers, constitute the community known today as Ludwig Cancer Research. Ludwig has, in all, put nearly $2.7 billion of its own funds into cancer research over the years.
Mr. Ludwig’s vision continues to guide our organization. Our aim is to support scientific research to ease the suffering caused by cancer. To that end, we fund basic research in the biological sciences, applied research for the design and development of candidate cancer therapies and diagnostics and early stage clinical trials to evaluate new treatments and therapeutic strategies. But what really distinguishes our approach from that of many other funders is its emphasis on providing steady, long-term funding to researchers—investing in talent, and patiently giving it time to find expression.
This is why so many of our scientists’ contributions have had a lasting impact on cancer research and care, whether in the unraveling of biochemical signaling networks that fuel malignancy or in the directed design of strategies to treat the deadliest of brain cancers. Our contributions to the currently burgeoning field of cancer immunotherapy illustrate this point very well.
In the late 1970s, scientists generally believed that the immune system could not discern spontaneously arising cancerous cells as enemies, and that attempts to direct it against tumors would prove futile. But our scientists, especially at Ludwig Brussels and Ludwig New York, disagreed. With unwavering support from Ludwig, our researchers worked steadily through the late 70s and 80s to prove the prevailing view wrong and, in so doing, helped to lay the scientific foundations for cancer immunotherapy, which is today transforming the treatment of a variety of malignancies.
It certainly mattered that Ludwig gave its researchers the time and latitude they required to make their case to the scientific community. Such support is unfortunately all too rare today. The kind of funding most often available to researchers—short-term, with renewals dependent on quick publication—diminishes the quality of scientific research, to everybody’s detriment.
To stay afloat, scientists are forced to generate quick results for incremental papers and discouraged from going against the grain or taking risks. And so the machinery of scientific grant allocation tends to fuel small-scale, unambitious research and smothers the incentive to ask daring questions. Worse, it distracts scientists from the exciting and useful business of scientific research.
We would all benefit if more funders of biomedical research, including the public sector, which provides the bulk of research support, took a page from Mr. Ludwig’s book. Researchers should have the long-term security and freedom to ask big questions and take the time to find the right answers. Those answers, after all, have the potential to transform all of our lives.
Robert Strausberg, PhD, is the executive director of collaborative sciences at Ludwig Cancer Research, an international collaborative network of acclaimed scientists that has pioneered cancer research and landmark discovery for more than 40 years.