Pharyngula

What does the Biologic Institute do?

A few years ago, the Discovery Institute set up laboratory to do research, the Biologic Institute, which is in principle a good thing — they do claim to want to take a scientific approach to understanding the origin of life, after all. So far, it’s been less than spectacular. They published one paper on software that models encoding Chinese characters as an analogy to protein folding. It’s mildly interesting, but its connection to intelligent design is tenuous and abstract, and it’s not at all clear how they can use it to expose problems in evolution…and even if they do find a problem in their model, it’s not a given that it will apply to real biology. One has to wonder what the Intelligent Design creationists are actually doing in their lab. Others have wondered and tried to peek into the goings-on, but have been turned away.

Those madcap jokers at antievolution.org have found another way to peek in. The Biologic Institute is a tax-exempt organization, which means they had to file a form with all kinds of interesting information in it — follow the money! You can look at their Form 990, too, just search for “biologic institute” and you’ll get a nice pdf back.

Their income for 2008 was $300,000. That’s a tidy sum of money — compared to what I need to run a small lab at a teaching university, it’s a spectacular sum of money, and is actually about 10 times more than the yearly supply and maintenance budget for our entire biology department (not counting salaries, of course; the Biologic Institute does pay salaries out of that $300K). Oh, what we could do with that much support…

On the other hand, it’s not very much money at all for an outfit with the grand goal “to conduct basic scientific research on topics relating to the origin, organization and operation of living things and their parts, and to the nature of ecosystems and environments conducived to life”. The DI is getting some cheap PR out of this, but nowhere near the amount is being invested that would be needed to address their grandiose goal. By comparison, the National Center for Science Education (you can get their Form 990, too!) had a budget of about $1.3 million in the same period. Here are their goals:

Science Education. The National Center for Science Education (NCSE) is a membership organization providing information and resources for schools, parents and concerned citizens working to keep evolution in public school science education. NCSE educates the press and public about the scientific, educational, and legal aspects of the creation and evolution controversy, and supply needed information and advice to promote and defend good science education at local, state, and national levels.

The NCSE is specific, focused and actually has a good-sized staff that does a lot of work that is visible to the public. We’re getting a bargain there. The Biologic Institute is vague, and while they’re operating on a quarter of the budget, doesn’t seem to do much.

It is a good racket, though. The director, Douglas Axe, receives a salary of $92,000, which is a heck of a lot more than I get paid (not that that means much: college professors in general aren’t exactly rich). Man, if I were in this business for the money, I should have gone into creationism. By comparison, though, you might wonder how much Eugenie Scott gets paid: $77,000. I was surprised — sure, she’s also making more than I am, but she’s a national figure with far more experience than I have. There is also a collection of well-known people like Barbara Forrest and Kevin Padian who serve on the board of the NCSE and get paid nothing. Again, don’t go into science with the expectation of riches.

Forget salaries. They’re the biggest part of most organizations budgets, but the news that people are working there isn’t news — we want to know what kind of nifty science gadgets are whirring away there. That’ll tell us what they’re up to. PCR machines? Sequencers? Lasers? Giant saltwater aquaria and bags and bags of squid chow? Here are there reported assets. Don’t get too excited.

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I guess that’s reasonable for an outfit that’s coding up software, and not much else. It’s kind of a let-down if you’re expecting the Biologic Institute were doing biology. (I know, they aren’t; they’re doing biologic, whatever that is).

But let’s not be quick to judge. Maybe they’ve achieved amazing things with a small lab and limited resources. Here’s what they proudly announce as their accomplishments for 2008.

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Hang on there…Doug Axe is getting paid $92,000 for getting 4,000 visitors a month to his website? I get more visitors than that in an hour! I’ve got to do some quick calculations here…if I were getting paid an equivalent amount per visit, based on last month’s traffic, I should be getting $67,677,045.43 for a year of Pharyngula! Where’s my money?

Now, unfortunately, I can’t link to the Biologic Institute web site, because if I did, I’d probably increase their productivity 100 fold.