Updated: 5:56 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2012 | Posted: 11:43 a.m. Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2012
By Stacey Singer
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
The German government has agreed to contribute $10 million a year for the next four years to the Max Planck Florida Institute for Neuroscience, a German official announced Wednesday at the institute’s ceremonial opening.
The unexpected grant, which will allow for the expansion of brain research, is only the fourth time in the 100-year history of Germany’s Max Planck Society that it has committed money to a venture outside of Germany.
“My wish is that this institute will be a focal point for scientific breakthroughs and a bridgehead for German and American cooperation,” said Cornelia Quennet-Thielen, state secretary of Germany’s Ministry of Education & Research.
About 400 scientists, politicians and leaders in business and education attended the ceremony to inaugurate the modern, 100,000 square-foot building where brain circuitry is being studied. The festivities featured students from the Oxbridge Academy performing classical German music, speeches about the value of international collaboration, and even video of Nobel laureate Bert Sakmann kiteboarding along the Atlantic shore.
Newly elected Palm Beach County Commissioner Hal Valeche, a one-time skeptic, said he was impressed that at a time of economic stress Germany was willing to support the Florida institute. He recalled the urging of former Scripps Research Institute President Dr. Richard Lerner to commit more tax money to bioscience here.
“Dr. Lerner said, “ ‘If we can just get one more world-class institution here, that will be the critical mass we need to get bioscience off the ground,’” Valeche said. “I think we’ve got that now.”
Florida and Palm Beach County have contributed $188 million to attract the German research giant to the region, including the $64 million building that opened Wednesday. The $40 million grant will enable scientists from Germany to visit and work, and likely will be renewed well beyond four years, Max Planck Society President Peter Gruss said.
The Florida institute is the society’s first outside of Europe. The society is supported by German taxpayers, and so the grant required approval from a committee comprised of both the federal government and all 16 German states, he said. The money is not earmarked for anything, instead the institute will be watched to see how it’s progressing.
“A scientific committee will come every two years to guide the institute and to tell me what they see about the research,” Gruss said.
Gruss said he envisions the institute being supported in the future one-third by the society, one-third by philanthropy and one-third by grants from the National Institutes of Health and other agencies.
“We have recruited young people from Cal-Tech, from Harvard, from Cold Spring Harbor. In three years, this institute already has standing in the scientific community,” Gruss said. “If you pick the right people they act as a magnet.”
The Florida institute’s CEO, David Fitzpatrick, said he opted to change the name of Max Planck Florida to the longer but more descriptive Max Planck Florida Institute for Neuroscience to “better communicate our scientific focus, our mission, and our dedication to understanding the most complex living structure in the known universe.”