This Small but Mighty Research Hub Is Expanding. Here’s Who’s Helping Make That Happen

Salk’s facilities were designed by famed midcentury architect Louis Kahn. flemingn/shutterstock

In the 60-plus years since its founding, the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, located along a particularly scenic stretch overlooking the Pacific Ocean in La Jolla, California, has more than earned its reputation as one of the world’s best-known centers of research — despite employing only a few dozen scientists at any one time. The small but mighty institute numbers several Nobel laureates among its faculty and alumni, as well as winners of other important science recognitions, like the Lasker Award and the Gruber Prize. Salk scientists are regularly ranked among the most highly cited researchers in the world.

From the institute’s inception, philanthropy from both charitable organizations and science-minded individual givers has played a key role, along with public funding for its research programs.

Given the global stature of the Salk Institute and its continually growing appeal to philanthropic funders interested in the life sciences, we thought it’d be worthwhile to review some of the center’s recent support and plans for the coming years. I spoke recently with Bryan Robinson, Salk’s vice president for external relations, to get up to speed with this unique scientific community and its fundraising goals.

First, some background. The Salk Institute is the brainchild of virologist Jonas Salk, who, in the 1950s, famously developed one of the first safe and effective polio vaccines, virtually eradicating the dangerous disease within a few years. After that world-changing milestone, Salk — whose scientific skill was evidently matched by a humanitarian nature and dealmaking savvy — rallied private and public support for his dream: to “create a collaborative environment where researchers could explore the basic principles of life and contemplate the wider implications of their discoveries for the future of humanity,” as the institute’s website puts it. San Diego gifted the project 27 acres of prime coastal real estate, and Salk partnered with famed midcentury architect Louis Kahn to design the institute, which opened its doors in 1963.

Salk researchers study an array of fields in the life sciences: aging and age-related disease, cancer, computational biology, genetics, immune system biology, infectious disease, human metabolism, neuroscience, plant biology for agricultural production and climate science, the protein interactions that underlie nearly all of the body’s chemical reactions, and cell regeneration for tissues and organs.

Recently, Salk announced a leadership change, naming Gerald Joyce, its senior vice president and chief science officer, to be the next president of the institute. Outgoing president Rusty Gage will return to his laboratory at Salk.

Charitable foundations and individuals have backed the Salk Institute since the beginning — the March of Dimes was an early financial backer that continues to contribute. In recent years, philanthropic support for the institute has been on the rise: Salk raised more than $100 million from philanthropic donors in fiscal year 2021, a record. Recently, Robinson said, the institute has bumped up its fundraising campaign goals to around that level: $750 million in the next seven years, up from its previous campaign goal of $500 million over five years. Fundraising appears to be well on track. For the current fiscal year, Salk has so far raised about $68 million, with five months to go.

“That campaign is actually ahead of pace, but we’re also onboarding Dr. Joyce (as institute president) in April, and we wanted to give him a longer runway, so we extended to seven years and $750 million,” Robinson said.

Salk scientists also pull in tens of millions annually in research grants from the state of California and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). For example, as announced in September last year, Salk scientists will lead a five-year, $126 million grant from the NIH to build a new Center for Multiomic Human Brain Cell Atlas, an element of NIH’s BRAIN Initiative.

But private philanthropy continues to play a vital role at Salk. Some $250 million — led by a 2021 $100 million challenge gift from longtime Salk backers Irwin and Joan Jacobs (Irwin is a co-founder of the tech giant Qualcomm, and a Salk trustee) — will go toward construction of a new technology facility to be named after the couple. The Jacobses are Giving Pledge signatories who have reportedly given an estimated $700 million-plus to San Diego-area health, science and arts causes.

Salk is also devoting additional resources to something even more important than its buildings and labs: It launched a search to bring on about 10 more scientists and their research teams of associates and students over the next five years.

“We really had to make a commitment as an institute to invest in faculty recruitment for the future, because it’s our scientists who are the principal investigators, and their postdoctoral associates and their graduate students, obviously, who make the science happen,” Robinson said. Salk casts a global net for talent, and it can cost millions of dollars to recruit a new scientist.

Additional philanthropic support has come from well-known foundations and donors, as well as from some that may not be household names, but are familiar health and science funders. Here are a few highlights.

  • In 2020, the Bezos Earth Fund — created that year with $10 billion from Jeff Bezos to address climate issues — made one of its first gifts to the Salk Institute. The fund donated $30 million to Salk's Harnessing Plants Initiative, which is studying ways to increase the ability of the world's largest crop plants, like corn and soybeans, to capture and store more carbon to offset climate change. Salk has long been known worldwide for its researchers in human health and biology, but its relatively new Harnessing Plants Initiative, which has geared up in just the last few years, is attracting new philanthropic givers with an interest in climate. "We're hearing from donors and private foundations in Europe and all over the world," Robinson said.

  • In July of 2022, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation committed nearly $2 million to a Salk scientist to sequence the genome of varieties of the cassava plant, a root vegetable consumed widely throughout the world, to help develop disease and drought-resistant plants.

  • Earlier this year, the Sol Goldman Charitable Trust awarded Salk researchers a $1.5 million grant to explore new therapeutic approaches for multiple sclerosis involving connections between the gut, brain and immune system.   

  • In 2022, the Larry L. Hillblom Foundation committed $1.2 million to study a molecular pathway that regulates blood sugar and fat — a pathway that's notably independent of the better-known insulin pathway. Such knowledge could lead to a new category of treatments for type 2 diabetes.

This year also marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Salk Cancer Center. The institute is close to renaming it, and the final decision will be tied to the givers who ultimately make a transformative investment. We’ll relay that news when it’s announced.