How do you spell goverment pork at ASU - "each researcher must generate $225 in federal or private grants for each square foot of space he or she occupies or lose lab space and maybe points in a performance review."

Biodesign chief sets challenges

Kerry Fehr-Snyder The Arizona Republic Apr. 8, 2006 12:00 AM

As a drug-company executive for 17 years, George Poste knew the perils of slumping sales: less money for research, slower growth and possible layoffs.

Now, as head of the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University, Poste wants his staff to face the same consequences.

Under him, each researcher must generate $225 in federal or private grants for each square foot of space he or she occupies or lose lab space and maybe points in a performance review. It's not the typical accountability measure in academe, but Poste makes no apologies.

"That is tragically the Darwinian model," Poste said. Those who can't compete shouldn't be carried by other researchers or the university, he said. "(Otherwise) it's a form of academic welfare. Dispense with it."

At 61 and headlong into a third career, Poste leads the most high-profile, ambitious effort launched at ASU under President Michael Crow. The Biodesign Institute is the flagship of ASU's effort to become a world-class research institution, applying its findings in biology, chemistry, physics, computing and other areas to better human health.

It recently opened a second building costing $79 million that will house up to 500 employees near the eastern edge of the Tempe campus.

Perhaps more than anyone, Poste embodies Crow's effort to inject corporate values and incentives into the university setting. He wants measurable results: grants, patents, high rankings, prestige.

"If you are competitive, you have a reputation," he said. "People want to work for the Fortune 500 companies. They want to play for the best sports teams."

A British native and naturalized U.S. citizen, Poste was lured out of retirement in north Scottsdale nearly three years ago to take the job. He came with experience as a research director, an adviser to the Defense Department on bioterrorism issues, and an author and speaker on genetics, health policy and personalized medicine.

He brings to the job a tireless curiosity, a penetrating intellect, and a force of will that wins admirers but comes off as arrogance to some faculty.

Measuring up

It's a Thursday night in January and Poste is delivering a lecture in his refined English accent to students, professors and others.

Poste has given scores of speeches in his career. He spoke about fighting supergerms in England last year ("Bugs, Damn Bugs!" the title went), about molecular medicine in Boston in 2004, and about biotech and bioterrorism at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., in 2003.

This night, at ASU's law college, he decries the fact that people expect to live in a risk-free world. They remain ignorant of science or anything else that requires advanced and difficult thinking. Taking risks to solve societal problems, such as bioterrorism and infectious diseases, should be everyone's responsibility.

"We want instant answers to complex issues," he said, citing "intelligent design" theory. "The problem is, it's always wrong."

Afterward, a physics professor approaches Poste and they debate for 20 minutes about ASU's new manifesto to keep score of its progress, via research dollars, school rankings and patent royalties. The professor argues that some measures, like rankings, are meaningless.

Poste rebuts, "If you're not keeping score, you're basically practicing mediocrity."

He also questions the quality of the physics department, citing U.S. News & World Report rankings. At first defensive, the professor then marshals a well-argued case for the department's work.

Poste relaxes.

"I'm delighted with what you've said tonight. You've got a message you can impart to your department chair, and you have a metric to judge it by," he said.

Poste would like to shake up the faculty world with a dual set of metrics, although he does not have the power to do so.

"What we now need is an entirely different tenured track (for research professors)," he said. Other professors would focus on teaching. The system would build in clear measures of accountability.

But some faculty view Poste as trying to force a corporate template on the academic world, which they say can harm research pursuits. One says Poste has yet to deliver stellar results.

"I've heard him speak. He has a certain arrogance about him," said Susan Mattson, president of the ASU faculty senate. She said, "(Poste asserts) that his institute is the best one and the worthwhile one. What they have to stand behind isn't there. A lot of potential, but I haven't seen it. He's also spent more time in industry than academia."

Living at full tilt

Asked how he wants to live life, Poste picks up a pencil. He draws a right angle on a piece of paper, a horizontal line with the vertical one on the right. It represents what he says should be everyone's goal in life, to "square the curve."

Instead of living a life that peaks in health and energy in one's 40s and gradually declines, one should live a full, active life into old age, then die suddenly with little suffering. The typical curve on life's graph is thus squared.

That's what Poste's parents did. His father, a retired auto mechanic, was working in his garden in a rural area south of London in 1997 when he had a stroke and died on the spot. He was 89. Almost four years later, Poste's mother, also 89, was at home with the flu, sitting in a recliner and reading the paper, when she had a pulmonary embolism and died.

Poste was educated in England and received a veterinary medical degree and a doctorate in virology. He became a researcher and professor in England and then in upstate New York. By 1980, he had left university life for Smith Kline & French Laboratories, where he was vice president and director of research.

He later rose to president of research and development and chief science and technology officer at SmithKline Beecham, a pharmaceutical giant.

Poste oversaw 7,500 employees, a $2.5 billion budget and the development of diagnostic tests and computer technology for health-care research and delivery. He also was involved in bringing to market 29 new drugs and vaccines.

In 2000, Poste retired to Scottsdale with his wife, Linda Lopez, now a molecular biologist at ASU. He began running a health care consulting group called Health Technology Networks.

Then Michael Crow came calling. Crow, who took over at ASU in 2002, was looking for someone to direct the new Biodesign Institute and began recruiting big-name scientists, including one in California. While on the phone, the scientist asked Crow why he wasn't looking in Arizona because the perfect candidate was living in Scottsdale. Poste took the job more than two years ago.

"Clearly the way I came to ASU was by Michael Crow's vision for this university," Poste said. "We're undertaking one of the most ambitious experiments in higher education and trying to take it (ASU) to the top flight of universities."

Like many executives, Poste works dawn to dusk, often putting in 14 hours a day at the Tempe campus. He spends many evenings reading scientific journals and other publications he packs into two satchels he totes home nightly.

He pushes the limit in other ways, too. He loves fast cars - he owns five high-performance vehicles, including a Ferrari, a Hummer and a new BMW M20 - and he is passionate about NASCAR. He calls race-car drivers "the ultimate athletes," as each race is "enormously tactical" and requires total concentration while drivers race inches apart at more than 200 mph.

Often dressed in Oxford blue shirts without a tie, Poste seems relaxed yet is always "on" when talking to crowds or one on one with students, scientists and leaders whose backing he needs.

He is a perpetual salesman, pitching ideas, stirring up debate, urging the talk on to a higher plane.

Last year, Poste bought five Segway Human Transporters for the Biodesign Institute. He wanted researchers to be able to quickly traverse ASU's sprawling Tempe campus with ease.


It was quintessential Poste: using new technology to help people connect with far-flung areas. It's what he believes the modern mind and ASU must do to succeed.

Poste said he firmly believes in linking researchers in disparate disciplines to allow their best ideas to mingle. The cross-disciplinary approach was most successfully put forth in the book Consilience by E.O. Wilson, a Harvard University biologist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author.

Poste tries to implement it in his own life. He is an "inevitable bibliophile," he says, with 20,000 books in an underground library in his Carefree home. He hasn't read them all, but he has read enough to draw from a wide array of sources to formulate and express ideas.

Poste maintains an annotated library of every scientific paper he has ever read. His staff enters the articles into a digital file that can be searched by keyword; the first 10 years of journal articles are on microfiche.

"The more incestuous we become, the more narrow we become," he said. For example, "biology has not had to think about national-security issues; they don't understand what's being done, what's at stake."

On the night of his law college speech, Poste walked back to his office in the glass-sheathed Biodesign Institute. It was 10:45 p.m., and the campus was nearly empty.

Poste was intent on clearing his e-mail in-box. He gets about 400 e-mails a day and personally answers about 50 of them.

Once home, he read four daily newspapers and crashed for the night. Typically, he sleeps four to five hours until the sleep deficit catches up with him.

He gets more rest, then it's back to full throttle.

Reach the reporter at or (602) 444-8975.

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