On March 4, some of the most powerful people in the United States gathered under the tent outside the Building 76 to celebrate the dedication of the David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research. All of MIT’s top brass was joined by Senator Scott P. Brown (R-Mass.) and David H. Koch ’62 himself — who Forbes listed as the 24th richest person in the world in 2010.
The Koch Institute — which was the MIT Center for Cancer Research until 2008 — moved into its new home in Building 76 just two months ago, thanks to Koch’s $100 million donation in October 2007. The new building boasts about 180,000 square feet and is located at a regional hub of biomedical research, near the Broad Institute and Whitehead Institute buildings on Main Street. The building’s physical design was intended to foster “interdisciplinary research” across the life sciences and engineering by encouraging active communication between scientists and engineers.
Tyler E. Jacks, director of the Koch Institute, said that Koch’s donation “enabled us to reshape our very approach to how cancer can be overcome, using interdisciplinary approaches and cancer solutions-oriented research,” in a speech on Friday.
Emphasizing collaboration among experts from different fields, he said, “will advance the discoveries and technologies that revolutionized the way cancer is detected, monitored, treated, and prevented.”
Jacks also highlighted the Institute’s proximity to established institutions of biological research fame.
“I was thrilled and surprised when Eric Lander [founding director of the Broad Institute] came crossing the street in a white-frilled apron with a tray of cookies,” joked Jacks.
At the dedication, MIT President Susan J. Hockfield called the Koch Institute a place where “MIT’s world-class biologists and engineers, with their laboratories side-by-side, collaborate to understand the basic molecular mechanisms of cancer cells and develop practical, patient-ready devices.” She said she was confident that the strength of today’s researchers at the Institute will be passed onto students when they learn the “collaborative instincts, interdisciplinary skills, and hands-on problem solving.”
Senator Brown, who also visited the Koch Institute last month, spoke at Friday’s ceremony as well. ”This amazing facility really puts Massachusetts and Cambridge and MIT on the map to do things that no other countries and no other institutions can do by taking the convergence model and using that multi-disciplinary thinking,” Brown said.
Koch gave the dedication’s final remarks, explaining his personal motivations for supporting cancer research at MIT. He said his long association with MIT began with his father — Fred C. Koch ’22 — who also graduated from MIT.
“Father graduated from the Institute with the first class ever to receive a degree in chemical engineering,” said Koch. The elder Koch encouraged his sons to attend MIT, three of whom — including David — graduated from MIT with chemical engineering degrees. Koch said he holds a “lifelong respect for MIT” and “admire[s] everything about this great institution.”
Koch became interested in cancer research when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1992. At that time, Koch expected he had “not long to live,” but he was treated with an experimental drug called abiraterone that “worked like a miracle.” Koch is on the Board of Directors of the Prostate Cancer Foundation.
Koch had also supported cancer research at many other institutions, including a $25 million commitment to MD Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas and $20 million to Johns Hopkins Medical Center. He said that supporting a wide range of institutions is the best strategy in furthering cancer research, just like winning a bet by “buying a ticket on every horse in the race.”
In addition to his support for cancer research, Koch — valued at $17.5 billion and the executive vice president of Koch Industries, Inc. — is known for his support of conservative causes. Koch Industries has financially backed conservative candidates, including Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin, according to The New York Times. Koch also provided funds to start the Americans for Prosperity Foundation in 2004, which has contributed to the rise of the Tea Party movement.
Koch Industries has also been called a “kingpin of climate science denial and clean energy opposition” by Greenpeace. But Koch Industries has said that Greenpeace was a “denier of any rational and honest dialogue on the underlying scientific debate regarding climate change,” the Times reported.
In an interview with the Times at Friday’s dedication, Koch, a libertarian, responded to criticisms of his political advocacy.
“I read stuff about me and I say, ‘God, I’m a terrible guy,’” said Koch. “And then I come [to MIT] and everybody treats me like I’m a wonderful fellow, and I say, ‘Well, maybe I’m not so bad after all.’”
And while Koch’s speech focused mostly on the cancer research institute, his politics did manage to slip through.
“The National Institutes of Health, and the National Cancer Institute in particular, are facing serious cutbacks in their funding due to the massive deficits the federal government is incurring,” said Koch, imploring those in attendance to donate to cancer research.
The Times has reported that one of Koch’s companies, Georgia-Pacific, has been attempting to convince the government not to list formaldehyde as a carcinogen; Georgia-Pacific is a producer of formaldehyde. In a 2010 statement, Koch Industries said that “all Koch companies will respect and fully comply with any new formaldehyde regulation,” and for all six years that Koch has been on the National Cancer Institute’s advisory board, “he has never engaged in a discussion of formaldehyde.”
In addition to his support for cancer research, Koch has also given $100 million to New York’s Lincoln Center, $20 million the American Museum of Natural History, and $15 million to the National Museum of Natural History to establish an exhibit on human evolution.
The Huffington Post reported that, at Friday’s dedication, Senator Brown was filmed telling Koch, “Your support during the election, it meant a ton. It made a difference and I can certainly use it again.”