And then there were 10. From 180 employees at its height, the 67-year-old House Research Institute (HRI) lost staff through resignations and layoffs until only 10 were left, none of whom are performing research.
Two dozen former employees continue to work onsite at HRI in offices and labs currently leased by the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), which also pays their salaries, and 44 former HRI personnel are now employed by the University of Southern California (USC).
While current HRI administrators declined to comment for this article, John House, MD, former HRI president, current HRI board member, and associate physician at the affiliated House Clinic, said that the independent institute had largely been supported by grateful patients and grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
“However, a single-focused institute relying on grateful patients and government funding became a problem.”
Although HRI produced outstanding research, the 2008 economic downturn led to significant decreases in both private and government funding, Dr. House said. “We found that we were struggling.”
A Form 990 filed with the Internal Revenue Service in 2012 shows that the organization had net assets of $18,435,254 and was operating at a deficit of $10,979,315.
Carolina Abdala, PhD, who was with HRI for two decades and had risen to the rank of scientist III, akin to a senior scientist or professor, before resigning, expressed some dissatisfaction with how the administrative leadership managed the organization's finances and stressed that the collapse of the institute was not a failure of science but of HRI's infrastructure.
“The science was flourishing, and, at the end, every PI [principal investigator] there was federally funded by one mechanism or another,” she said. “We had done exactly what we had been asked to do, which was to bring in grant money to supplement our research.”
However, harboring resentment is counterproductive, she said.
Also of concern is that pay for unused vacation time and several months of retirement benefits are still owed to former employees, said Laurie S. Eisenberg, PhD, who worked at HRI on and off for a span of 29 years and had most recently developed a research program for children with hearing loss, accessing research participants from the Children's Auditory Research and Evaluation (CARE) Center.
She and colleagues filed a claim with the California Department of Industrial Relations to pursue compensation for unpaid vacation.
SIXTY-SEVEN YEARS OF DISCOVERY
The House Research Institute, formerly House Ear Institute, has a long legacy of contributions to the management of hearing and balance disorders, the early diagnosis and treatment of acoustic tumors, and the understanding of temporal bone histopathology, and was a pioneer in the advancement of implantable hearing devices, Dr. House noted. William House, MD, who was his uncle and the brother of HRI founder Howard P. House, MD, developed the first practical cochlear implant and first auditory brainstem implant.
The organization also trained 30,000 ear, nose, and throat physicians from around the world.
From the 1950s through 1970s, the institute and the associated House Clinic were renowned for having world-class surgeons who were innovators in clinical otolaryngology, said Robert V. Shannon, PhD. Dr. Shannon was with HRI for nearly 25 years before resigning over the summer. Toward the end of his time there, he was director of the Division of Communication and Auditory Neuroscience.
The institute was “a fabulous place to nurture research and lab development,” Dr. Abdala said. “The dynamics and social chemistry among investigators was unparalleled.”
HRI also had great relationships with scientists outside the institution, regularly bringing in collaborators and speakers, she added.
“I think our productivity was pretty strong in terms of publications, grant funding, and appointments to leadership positions,” she said.
“We were constantly writing grants and attempting to obtain additional external funding, whether from the NIH, National Science Foundation, or smaller groups like the National Organization for Hearing Research Foundation or March of Dimes.”
Internal financial support from HRI allowed researchers “to be creative with their science,” Dr. Abdala said. “With internal funds, we could branch out to promising new areas and not be bound by the aims written into a federally sponsored project.”
PAY NO LONGER GUARANTEED
The administration informed researchers about financial problems early on but seemed confident that the organization would survive the economic downturn, Dr. Eisenberg said. However, all pay increases ceased, she added.
In April 2013, the administration gathered the researchers and told them that their pay and that of all HRI employees could no longer be guaranteed, Dr. Abdala said.
“It was starkly apparent that the problems had reached some sort of peak.”
At that point, researchers were put on a paycheck-to-paycheck schedule, Dr. Abdala said. They were then placed on partial furlough in June, and by August, HRI had stopped contributing to any internal salaries, she said.
The situation had become so bleak over the summer that “everyone started looking for other options,” said Dr. Eisenberg, adding she was saddened because Dr. William House had given her many wonderful opportunities to grow as an audiologist.
None of the scientists were prepared for HRI's sudden downfall, said Dr. Shannon, adding that he was happy and proud being a member of the House Research Institute.
“We felt like the rug was pulled out from under us.”
FOCUSED ON THE FUTURE
The downsizing at HRI will not affect the House Clinic, which has about 30,000 patient visits annually, Dr. House said.
The research being conducted by the UCLA investigators working onsite at HRI will continue to translate into care at the House Clinic, he added. Prospective research currently under way includes auditory brainstem implant and cochlear implant studies as well as evaluations of novel treatments for Meniere's disease and new drug delivery systems to the middle ear.
All HRI scientists who left the institute have found homes at other universities, said Dr. Shannon, who is one of eight former HRI researchers with NIH funding now working full-time at USC on basic science and translational research. Overall, 44 former HRI personnel are now employed by the university.
Joining USC has been an excellent opportunity, although moving to a new institution includes some challenges, such as transferring grants, relocating Food and Drug Administration (FDA) clinical trials, and obtaining new Institutional Review Board (IRB) approvals, said Dr. Shannon, who is research professor in the Department of Otolaryngology.
John K. Niparko, MD, chair of the Department of Otolaryngology–Head & Neck Surgery at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, was instrumental in ensuring former HRI researchers were able to continue their work at the university.
“We were most concerned with maintaining sustainability of the research in progress and building strong collaborations that in the end benefit patients—that is always our ultimate goal,” he wrote in an e-mail to The Hearing Journal.
The emerging collaborations between USC scientists and former HRI investigators “are providing numerous benefits in unanticipated ways and, I hope, will continue to honor the legacy of the House Research Institute,” Dr. Niparko said.
The University of Southern California had an existing team of sensory-science investigators, and a number of collaborations with HRI investigators were preexisting, particularly with respect to research training.
Dr. Eisenberg, who moved to USC as well, believes that the university is committed to ensuring the translational aspects of her hearing aid, cochlear implant, and auditory brainstem implant research come to fruition. In addition, the university provided a home for the work undertaken at HRI's CARE Center in the USC Center for Childhood Communication.
Dr. Abdala, who is now a professor of otolaryngology at USC, is also hopeful for the growth of her research and of hearing research in general at the university. Having to incorporate eight research programs into a university setting so abruptly will never be easy, she said. However, “I've been very impressed with Dr. Niparko coordinating this effort.”
Based on the upheaval of last summer, Dr. Eisenberg is amazed that former HRI researchers have landed on their feet. The investigators who moved from HRI to USC “haven't looked back; we just look forward.”
*An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the researchers were laid off. They resigned.