The rare microscope that neuroscientist David Fitzpatrick uses to peer inside living brains and watch nerve cells fire was developed within Germany's Max Planck Society, and brought to Florida courtesy of state and Palm Beach County taxpayers.
Nearly $700 million in public money have been poured into the gamble to bring both Scripps Florida and Max Planck to the area, a gamble made during the Jeb Bush administration in the belief that biotechnology would transform the area's economy and give the world new cures for diseases.
The value of that pricey biotech bet is on public display this week in Jupiter [Fla.] as Germany's Max Planck Society marks the formal grand opening of its first and only U.S. branch, highlighted by a ribbon-cutting ceremony Wednesday.
Surrounded by native plants and preferred parking for fuel-efficient cars, the glassy Max Planck Florida Institute for Neuroscience along Donald Ross Road has been six years in the making. Inside, it holds exceptional tools, such as Fitzpatrick's extraordinarily precise two-photon microscope, as well as eight other research group leaders focused on fundamental questions about how the brain works.
Could expansion of human knowledge be seen as one measure of the return on taxpayers' investment? Fitzpatrick believes that it should. Billions of dollars have been spent on studying Alzheimer's disease and testing drug candidates, yet science still can't say with certainty what's causing the death of brain cells.
Parkinson's disease, manic depression, schizophrenia -- so many brain disorders are poorly understood, he said. Taking a step back to really understand how the healthy brain works may in the end prove more efficient, he said.
"It's important to be straightforward with people and make them understand how little we know about fundamental brain organization," Fitzpatrick said. "Insight must precede application."
Cluster Came at Great Expense
Coaxing the Max Planck institute to set up next to Scripps Florida was a costly proposition. Palm Beach County put up almost $87 million, Florida Atlantic University donated $6.3 million of its land, Jupiter waived $260,000 in impact fees and the state paid $94.1 million.
The controversial commitment was first broached in 2006, two years after state and county taxpayers had committed more than $500 million to Scripps Florida with a promise that Scripps alone could launch a bioscience cluster. The then-president of The Scripps Research Institute, Dr. Richard Lerner, sold local politicos on bringing another top-tier institute to assure the long-term success of a sustainable local biotechnology industry.
It's coming to fruition at an unexpectedly difficult time, however. The biotechnology industry globally has seen its boom go flat and venture capital investment in spinoff companies pull back. Pharmaceutical companies are swallowing a bitter pill of cost-cutting, and the federal grants that underpin most researchers are teetering on the fiscal cliff of budget cuts.
Max Planck is one of the rare places that will float above those difficulties because of its public financing, Fitzpatrick said. Following the German model, Max Planck's scientists are assured support for five years, put through a review, then given four more years. They are encouraged to seek additional outside grants, but it's not mandatory.
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