Stanford Report Online

Stanford Report, September 5. 2001

Miffed by stem cell policy, Clark suspends Bio-X gift
Founder of Netscape, SGI protests Bush administration's research restrictions


Two weeks ago, biochemistry Professor Jim Spudich received shocking news from university President John Hennessy: Silicon Valley entrepreneur Jim Clark had decided to withhold part of the $150 million he had pledged to Stanford in 1999 to launch Bio-X -- an interdisciplinary program in bioengineering, biomedicine and the biosciences.

Clark said he was outraged by President Bush's Aug. 9 decision to limit human embryonic stem cell research, and equally dismayed at a bill recently passed by the U.S. House of Representatives banning therapeutic cloning of human embryos. Clark told Hennessy that, in protest, he would suspend a portion of his promised donation to Stanford and issue a public denunciation of the White House and Congress.

“When I heard the news, I was stunned,” recalled Spudich, co-director of Bio-X. “We had just met with Clark a few weeks earlier.”

Clark formally announced his decision to withhold 40 percent of his initial $150 million pledge in an Aug. 31 New York Times op-ed piece titled “Squandering Our Technological Future.”

“Lately, stem cell research and cloning have caught the attention of Washington,” wrote Clark, the founder of Netscape, Silicon Graphics, Healtheon and myCFO.

“Driven by ignorance, conservative thinking and fear of the unknown, our political leaders have undertaken to make laws that suppress this type of research,” he noted. “While only a portion of Stanford's plans involve stem cells, I believe research that uses them is vital to the future of medicine. I am therefore suspending $60 million of my remaining pledge pending the outcome of ongoing political deliberations.”

Although the long-term impact of Clark's protest on the national stem cell debate is uncertain, his surprise announcement would not derail Stanford's Bio-X program, according to university officials.

“While we are saddened by Mr. Clark's decision, we are deeply grateful for the $90 million he already has committed to the James H. Clark Center for Biomedical
Engineering and Sciences, and we appreciate his strong feelings on this subject,” said Hennessy in a written statement Aug. 31.

Clark, who already had given $60 million to Bio-X since his original pledge, has promised an additional $30 million, for a total of $90 million. That amount, combined with another $60 million from an anonymous donor, will be enough to complete the Clark Center, now budgeted at $146.6 million.

“Construction of the 225,000-square-foot Clark Center is underway,” Hennessy noted. “When occupied in 2003, the center will accommodate about 50 faculty from a wide range of disciplines. Mr. Clark's initial $90 million gift will allow us to continue to build this vital center and accelerate important interdisciplinary research at Stanford.”

Added Hennessy, “we are hopeful that continued progress in stem cell research, combined with compelling clinical applications, will lead to an evolution of government policy and eventually to a resumption of the funding of Mr. Clark's pledge to Stanford.”

Stanford roots

“Without Clark's $90 million, the project would have been crippled,” says Spudich, noting that it was in his role as university provost that Hennessy secured the original $150 million commitment from Clark in October 1999 -- at the time the largest single donation to Stanford since the founding grant.

Clark and Hennessy have known each other for more than 20 years, since the two were colleagues in the Department of Electrical Engineering. When he announced his gift nearly two years ago, Clark said he felt indebted to the university because, as a Stanford professor in the early 1980s, he had been allowed to develop technologies that later brought him commercial success.

“The original vision for Bio-X is unchanged by Clark's decision,” commented chemical engineering Professor Channing Robertson, co-director of Bio-X. “What has changed is our ability to go beyond the Clark Center and to continue funding programmatic areas such as the Bio-X Interdisciplinary Initiatives and the Core Shared Facilities.”

Last year, Bio-X awarded more than $3 million for 19 interdisciplinary faculty research projects. Another $7 million in matching grants was awarded to build and upgrade 17 core research facilities to be shared by Stanford faculty and students throughout the campus. All of these projects will be fully funded, said Spudich, but new grants will have to be put on hold until new funding is found.

“It's clear that we'll need to do more fundraising to close the $60 million gap,” Spudich observed. “We have begun a series of meetings with [Vice President of Development] John Ford and the deans of the three schools overseeing Bio-X -- Engineering, Medicine and Humanities and Sciences -- to launch a new fundraising campaign.”
At a press conference in Beckman Center on Aug. 31, Spudich and Stanford Nobel laureate Paul Berg assured reporters that stem cell research at the university would move forward.

“Stanford is poised to be at the cutting edge in this area of research,” commented Berg, the Robert W. and Vivian K. Cahill Professor of Cancer Research, Emeritus. “It has been essentially awaiting the release of federal funds for that purpose, and I don't see that Mr. Clark's statement in any way is going to impede that progress.”

Berg said Clark's decision could produce “a wavelet or a tidal wave” of public reaction.

“Maybe Clark's thing will essentially shake people up,” he added, noting that the U.S. Senate begins hearings on federally funded stem cell research on Sept. 5.

Spudich told reporters that Bio-X is a much “bolder and broader effort” than stem cell research, encompassing such emerging fields as single-molecule analysis, biophysics, tissue engineering, biocomputation, robotics and molecular and cellular imaging.

“My feeling is everything is going to be just fine,” Spudich added. “Stanford has proven over and over again its ability to raise very large amounts of money on very short notice. I'm the eternal optimist.”