Lipstick on a pig SKERI Self-Destructs

The Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute was once a thriving, internationally renowned scientific institution, pursuing dozens of NIH-funded projects, with many more in development. Then, the very people entrusted with its care pushed it off a cliff.

Accelerating Financial Crisis


NIH & Non-NIH Income 2000-2015
The drop in NIH funding (colored bars) is even worse than it looks in the graph: adjusted for inflation, FY-2015 funding of $1.6M becomes $1.1M, an 
astounding 80% reduction from that in 2000. Loss of elite NIH funding impacts the operating budget, of course, but also signals S-K's loss of standing as a credible research institute; the former should have been comprehensible – and alarming – to the Board of Directors, even if the later was not. S-K's decline is not due to a "difficult funding environment", as it's Director has claimed. On the contrary, NIH inflation-adjusted funding increased by 25% during this same period. Institute funding from non-NIH sources (greenish line) has fallen, too, from $4.1M in 2009 to a disheartening $1.6M in 2014.

The precipitous 2008-to-2012 decline in NIH funding was caused by expulsion or departure of S-K's most productive scientists, who took their grants with them. But the Institute's continuing malaise, reflected in evaporation of funding from all sources, is due to a perverse directorial vision and the general decay of institutional support for the few remaining labs. Irreversible closures of major facilities have put whole classes of high-priority projects out of reach. Critically supportive Core Services and Training grants have been lost, and IT, library, and other essential services are no longer provided. The evident inability to recruit self-supporting young scientists, formerly a hallmark of the S-K model, has reduced the notion of institutional recovery from hope to delusion.

While the wreck smolders, the Board of this publicly funded non-profit institute rewards Director Brabyn and nonagenarian Founder Jampolsky with annual salaries of $349,992 and $274,726, respectively (both exclusive of benefits; data from 2014 IRS 990-PF's), contributing to annual deficits averaging $1.5M. 

Attempts to bring back the past poison the present and destroy the future

As Senior Scientist at The Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute for 30 years I watched this small, well-regarded, vision research institute, at which dozens of us invested our careers, grow and approach maturity, but then recoil from its success, attacking and expelling its strongest scientists, shuttering its major research facilities, and abandoning its traditional strengths. In just a few years, as a predictable (indeed, predicted!) result of policies touted as "refocusing on core goals" and "returning to founding principles", its funding has been lost, its labs and offices have emptied, and it has become scientifically irrelevant.

It is impossible to blame this grotesque collapse on just one man, although S-K's founder, Arthur Jampolsky, is certainly responsible for leading the institute's backward-directed death march. At least as interesting as why a founder would destroy his creation is why almost everyone who worked to build S-K over half a century, and everyone entrusted with its care, would follow his perverse leadership. (One is reminded of Pete Seeger’s Vietnam-era song "Big Muddy", except with a bad ending.)

S-K Board members ignored repeated warnings, attempted to silence them, or quietly resigned. Scientists on the Board should have questioned the demonization, departure, or expulsion of most of the institute's scientific talent, and should have understood the consequences of directorial subversion, and then termination, of scientific recruiting, but they did not. Board members in finance might have questioned the costly abandonment of critical research facilities, the collapse of external funding (see above), and the speed with which the institute was burning through its endowment, but either they did not notice or did not care.

S-K's scientists, with few exceptions, raised only timid objections to obviously catastrophic policies, and a few even supported them (Stockholm syndrome?). Those able to leave S-K are long gone, and the unfortunate few remaining have unavoidably become enablers of the final stages of collapse. Specifics of S-K's disfunction have been widely known since 2009 (see below), yet colleagues in the medical, scientific, and funding communities who offered help, or stood up against this travesty in any way, can be counted on the fingers of one hand. 

How does one understand the unstoppable suicide of an important scientific institution? I had imagined that in a scientific environment, clear, evidence-based argument would be effective, perhaps awakening the Board to its responsibilities, or moving the scientific staff and community to effective action, but it is no longer so clear to me that a life in science predisposes one to defend common sense against obviously self-destructive nonsense. S-K's inexorable decline has been a slow-motion train-wreck, somewhat mystifying because the mechanics are not apparent. There may be a PhD project here in organizational psychology!

The Last Ten Years of Smith-Kettlewell

After suffering a decade of perverse policy decisions and directorial misbehavior, as 2009 drew to a close, two Senior Scientists (one a founder) gathered up the evidence of looming collapse and presented it to the S-K Board and community. A few friends of the Institute endorsed and enlarged upon our account. The S-K Board responded by holding sham hearings and threatening to sue for defamation.

Last 10 Years
Miller JM, Scott AB (2009). The Last Ten Years of Smith-Kettlewell.

Beginning around 2000, this once vigorous, respected center for research in vision physiology and psychophysics went into a death-spiral, with founder Arthur Jampolsky at the controls, the Board complicit, and the faculty paralyzed by fear or distracted by short-term interests. Over the next decade, most of Smith-Kettlewell's faculty and staff were expelled of left, and most of its research support was lost. Its newly-renovated physiology building was closed. Neither S-K's scientists nor its Board members cared to do the work to effect the change in leadership and policy needed to avert collapse. Click the "Acrobat" icon to the left for the whole story.
2013 correspondence with S-K Board member about our funding analysis.

An S-K Board member (unnamed to protect the guilty), responding to an earlier funding analysis, gives some insight into the quality of thinking on that governing body.

Misdirection of Funds?

Complaint to NIH-OMA-DPI
Miller JM (2013) Complaint to The National Institutes of Health, Office of Management Assessment, Division of Program Integrity (NIH-OMA-DPI).

S-K was collecting indirect costs (IDCs) associated with my salary when I was no longer working there and they were not providing the related services, while Eidactics, where NIH project work was actually performed, was deprived of the IDCs intended to support that work. Was this theft of taxpayer money and willful damage to a Federally-sponsored medical research project? Did anyone care?

How Did This Happen?

Founder's Syndrome
Founder's Syndrome.

Problems typically seen when a founder maintains disproportionate power and influence beyond the initial growth phase of an organization include: exclusion of new talent, marginalization of other founders, absence of effective organizational structures, concentration of all decision-making in the founder, and rampant cronyism. S-K's got 'em all!
Jonathan Haidt's Social Intuition and Moral Foundations theories.

Why did otherwise intelligent people discount all warnings and ignore all evidence to follow a gerontic founder down an obviously ruinous path? Haidt's Elephant and Rider Metaphor suggests that emotions (the elephant) determine behavior, while reason (the rider) gets carried along, mostly providing convenient justifications. Slavish obedience to authority is a dominant ethical principle in many cultures, though it is perhaps surprising to see it so handily overcome all reason and enlightened self-interest among educated professionals at a scientific institution in California.

See Also

What scientific directions are sponsored by an institute in the grip of such a destructive, backward vision? See: Oculomotor Fundamentalism.