With federal funding in doubt, SBU Charity Gala scores

Reach for the stars: Former Vice President Joseph Biden addresses a record 870 guests at the 2017 Stony Brook University Charity Gala.

The Stony Brook Foundation’s message on scientific research: If you want it done, do it yourself.

With scientists around the nation marching against President Donald Trump’s plans to eliminate federal funding for thousands of laboratory-research programs, the foundation – a registered 501(c)3 and the university’s philanthropic backbone – took matters into its own hands this week.

In recognition of his dedication to cancer research, former Vice President Joseph Biden was the guest of honor at Stony Brook University’s annual Charity Gala, hosted by the foundation April 20 at Chelsea Piers in Manhattan. The gala, attended by a record 870 guests, raised more than $6.9 million in gifts and pledges, including $2 million-plus for academic scholarships and upwards of $4.8 million dedicated specifically to the Stony Brook University Cancer Center.

Since its inaugural event in 2000, the annual Gala has now raised more than $50 million, according to SBU.

That likely sounds pretty good to Trump, who has stated repeatedly that the industries and organizations involved in scientific research should be more responsible for their own funding. Such thinking fueled the rookie president’s Fiscal Year 2018 federal budget proposal, America First: A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again, released in March.

Lambasted by critics as ignorant, shortsighted and scientifically devastating (and by Vermont Senator and former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders as “morally obscene”), the budget plan includes such science-strangling proposals as a $6 billion reduction in the National Institutes of Health budget, a 31 percent reduction in Environmental Protection Agency funding and about $900 million trimmed from the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, which funds Brookhaven National Laboratory – a cornerstone of the Long Island innovation economy – and other national laboratories.

Trump’s views on federal funding for scientific research are a 180-degree departure from those of his White House predecessor. Among other science-supporting initiatives, the Barack Obama administration created the Cancer Moonshot, a mission to double research efforts in the fight against a disease that causes more than 8 million global deaths annually.

Power trio: (From left) Stanley, Biden and Simons, all smiles at the Charity Gala.

Under Biden’s leadership, the Cancer Moonshot Task Force – now known as Cancer Breakthroughs 2020 – catalyzed innovative partnerships between 20 government agencies and departments and fostered upwards of 70 private-sector research collaborations.

Biden also led the effort to pass the 21st Century Cures Act, a federal program dedicated to funding and otherwise supporting biomedical research. The program, enacted by Congress in December 2016 and scheduled to provide $1.8 billion over seven years for cancer-focused scientific research, has survived the early days of the Trump administration because Congress has not passed a federal spending plan for FY2017 – meaning the federal government is operating, so far, on a series of continuing resolutions that maintain FY2016 spending levels.

This week, the 21st Century Cures Act announced its first series of grants totaling roughly $458 million, to be dispersed by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to combat opioid abuse and addiction in all 50 states and U.S. territories.

But the 2017 Charity Gala was all about cancer research at SBU, another Long Island economic and scientific cornerstone. Biden – a who lost his son, former Delaware State Attorney General Joseph Robinette “Beau” Biden III, to brain cancer while serving as the 47th vice president – told gala attendees that the goal of the Cancer Moonshot was to infuse the cancer-research culture with “the urgency of now.”

That program “has become a movement, giving cancer patients and the people impacted by their illness new hope,” the former VP noted. “And what cancer patients want more than ever is hope.”

And that, Biden added, means funding the laboratories and researchers on science’s front lines.

“We can only hope to make sustainable progress if we’re preparing the next generation of cancer scientists and doctors,” he said.

Thanks in part to various funding drives, the Stony Brook Cancer Center is preparing to relocate in 2018 to a new, 254,000-square-foot Medical and Research Translation facility that will combine researchers, physicians and advanced imaging diagnostics.

Meanwhile, the Cancer Center is already making significant progress: Stony Brook researchers Yusuf Hannun and Lina Obeid are receiving international recognition for their pioneering studies in lipid metabolism and cancer, for instance.

That’s the sort of forefront-level research that should attract financial support, federal or otherwise, according to SBU President Samuel Stanley Jr.

“We share Joe Biden’s determination, sense of urgency and his fundamental ​confidence​ in our ability to make a difference in the fight against cancer,” Stanley said in a statement. “The Stony Brook Cancer Center brings together the brightest minds, enhancing purposeful collaboration and creating strategic partnerships to share information and accelerate research.

“Our researchers are receiving worldwide attention for a pioneering study of the genesis and behavior of cancer cells at the molecular level,” Stanley added, with “the goal of one day helping to detect, treat and eventually eliminate the disease for good.”

Biden joined a distinguished roster of scholars, politicians, celebrities and luminaries from numerous fields to be honored at the annual Charity Gala for their “outstanding and relentless commitment to society,” according to SBU. Previous guests of honor include Nobel laureate C.N. Yang, IMAX CEO Richard Gelfond, Simons Foundation founders Jim and Marilyn Simons (SBU ’74 and ’84, respectively), and actors Ed Harris, Jane Fonda, Julie Andrews and Alan Alda.

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