The University of California, San Francisco, has quietly become one of the world's premier health-sciences institutions, a leader in biomedical research, patient care, higher education, and public service. Two dozen UCSF faculty scientists are members of the National Academy of Sciences, three have won Nobel prizes. Sixteen UCSF faculty members are investigators in the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, putting UCSF among the universities with the greatest number of staff holding these prestigious biomedical research posts.
With 18,000 faculty and staff, UCSF has an annual budget of about $1.9 billion and is San Francisco's second-largest employer. The UCSF medical center is consistently ranked among the top 10 in the country. Here are edited excerpts of what notable figures said to BusinessWeek's Cliff Edwards about the university:
Bill Rutter, former chairman of UCSF's Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics and co-founder of Chiron, on the school's role in the late '60s as one of the early pioneers of cross-disciplinary research:
"Modern science is diverse and requires different approaches. It's a natural way to think in this era, but back then, we helped forge a place that was starting from the ground level and has risen into the stratosphere."
"In the 1970s, UCSF wasn't a research-oriented medical institution. It wasn't a cohesive force. I believed that collegiality could bring new technologies and create an adult environment for students. Plus, it was just a heck of a lot more fun. We needed multidimensional approaches and a commitment to develop new technologies."
"Creating a collective environment wasn't an attractive idea at the time on a nationwide basis. It was that general idea that captivated me and captivated the people who came with me. That environment is good for science and good for teaching science. Stanford was a paradigm for doing good research, but the department of biochemistry had pretty sharp borders on it. It was more self-contained. Many universities were the same, more segregated into individual units defined by their professors. UCSF is somewhat more horizontal in terms of status. Young faculty are treated about the same as significant professors."
Intel Chairman Andrew S. Grove, who was successfully treated for prostate cancer by UCSF doctors, says the university is at the forefront of the next tech revolution:
"Medical technology is being developed faster than ever, but deploying them into an increasingly aware and demanding patient population has been hard because of...cost-of-delivery problems. It's very exciting that 30 miles from where I normally sit is a leading organization that does a lot of fundamental work."
He says the kind of collaboration taking place at UCSF is essential as scientists work to understand the complex interactions of the human genome. To do that, scientists will need to be good not only in biology but in database manipulation and pattern recognition.
"It's refreshing in today's world [to see the] recycling of some of the money that came out of commercial activities into a noncommercial channel. [UCSF] is one of a dozen medical institutions that are doing all this modeling stuff in a collaborative fashion."
Richard Scheller, head of research at Genentech, says UCSF's Mission Bay expansion has the potential to create a strong biotech corridor in south San Francisco:
"There's no doubt UCSF is one of the top institutions in the world for biomedical research."
David A. Kessler, former head of the U.S. Food & Drug Administration who was named dean of UCSF's School of Medicine in June, praises the university's singular focus. Two of the reasons for that focus: Its lack of an undergraduate program and athletic teams.
"There's a lot to be said for a place whose purpose and mission are unambiguous. There's really a sense here that nothing's impossible."
Kessler says UCSF stands to rise even more in prominence because of the Mission Bay expansion. The currency for luring top scientists nowadays is having physical space for cutting-edge laboratories and access to colleagues' work. At Mission Bay, scientists will be clustered according to their research interests (for example, aging), instead of the more traditional way -- by department.
"There's been a lot of thought put into the planning. You can do science better because you have colleagues who provide world-class support. That's as good as it gets."