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Do multimillion-dollar dinosaur auctions erode trust in science?

Derided as ‘toys for the rich,’ the specimens being bought and sold raise broader questions about the relationship between science and capitalism.

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Sotheby's sold a 77 million-year-old Gorgosaurus skeleton for over $6 million in July 2022. Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images

Dinosaurs are in the news these days, but it’s not just for groundbreaking discoveries.

More and more paleontologists are ringing alarm bells about high-profile auctions in which dinosaur fossils sell for outrageous sums. The most recent example involves a 77 million-year-old Gorgosaurus skeleton that Sotheby’s sold for over US$6 million in August 2022.

But that’s not even close to the most anyone ever paid for a dinosaur. In May 2022, Christie’s sold a Deinonychus skeleton for $12.4 million. And a couple of months before that, Abu Dhabi’s Department of Culture and Tourism paid an eye-popping $31.8 million for Stan, a remarkably complete T. rex from South Dakota’s Hell Creek Formation that’s going to be the centerpiece of the Persian Gulf city’s new natural history museum.

Some scientists are so dismayed they are speaking out. University of Edinburgh paleontologist Steve Brusatte told the Daily Mail that auction houses turn valuable specimens into “little more than toys for the rich.” Thomas Carr from Carthage College in Wisconsin was even more forthright, saying, “Greed for money is what drives these auctions.” He also complained that wealthy elites – including actors Nicholas Cage and Leonardo DiCaprio – are competing to acquire the best specimens in a game of juvenile one-upmanship, describing them as “thieves of time.”

Most commenters trace the booming market for dinosaurs back to Sue, the largest and most complete T. rex ever found. After the FBI confiscated it from the same group of fossil hunters who found Stan, the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago acquired it – with financial backing from Disney and McDonald’s – for over $8 million in 1997.

But as I document in my recent book, “Assembling the Dinosaur,” the commercial specimen trade is as old as the science of paleontology itself. And its history shows the debate over whether dinosaurs ought to be bought and sold involves much deeper questions about the long-standing but hotly contested relationship between science and capitalism.

Two sides of the debate

Paleontologists have good reason to oppose the commercial sale of valuable fossils. Science is fundamentally a community enterprise, and if specimens aren’t available for public examination, paleontologists have no way to assess whether new findings are true. What if a particularly outlandish theory is based on a fraudulent specimen?

This happens more often than you’d think. In the late 1990s a private collector purchased what appeared to be a feathered dinosaur at the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show. National Geographic subsequently reported on it to great fanfare, claiming it was a “missing link” between dinosaurs and modern birds. When scientists grew suspicious, they found that the so-called “Archaeoraptor” fossil combined pieces of several distinct specimens to make a chimerical creature that never existed.

But commercial fossil hunters make a compelling point, too. Most fossils first come to light through the natural process of erosion. Eventually, however, erosion also destroys the specimen itself – and there simply aren’t enough scientists to find every fossil before it is lost. Hence, the argument goes, commercial collectors should be celebrated for saving specimens by digging them up.

Wealthy philanthropists distance themselves

Both sides of the argument make a compelling point. But as the fiasco around “Archaeoraptor” reveals, it’s worth asking whether financial incentives erode trust.

Dinosaurs first came to the attention of geologists during the 19th century. In fact, these gigantic lizards did not acquire their name until the comparative anatomist Richard Owen invented the biological category “Dinosauria” in 1842.

Portrait of man with white beard wearing a suit seated in a chair.
Industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie had a dinosaur species, Diplodocus carnegii, named after him. Library of Congress

At that time, scientists did not treat dinosaurs any differently from other valuables that could be dug out of the ground, such as gold, silver and coal. Museums purchased most of their fossils from commercial collectors, often using funds donated by wealthy industrialists like Andrew Carnegie, who even had a dinosaur named after him: Diplodocus carnegii.

That started to change at the very end of the 19th century, when there was a concerted effort to decommodify dinosaur bones, and museums began to distance themselves from the commercial specimen trade.

One impetus came from museums’ wealthy benefactors, who sought to demarcate their charitable activities from the unsavory world of commerce. Philanthropists like Carnegie and J.P. Morgan gave money to cultural institutions because they wanted to signal their refined taste, their appreciation for learning and their republican virtues – not to enter into a business transaction.

Moreover, the first Gilded Age resembled the present in that it, too, saw a sharp increase in economic inequality. This led to widespread class conflict, which could be remarkably violent and bloody. Afraid that incendiary labor leaders would bring the industrial economy to its knees, wealthy elites began using public displays of conspicuous generosity to demonstrate that American capitalism could yield public goods in addition to profits.

For all these reasons, it was essential for their philanthropic activities to be seen as selfless acts of genuine altruism, utterly divorced from the cutthroat competition of the marketplace.

Scientists take control

At the same time, paleontologists embraced the language of “pure science” to claim they produced knowledge for its own sake – not financial gain.

By arguing that their work was free from the corrupting influence of money, scientists made themselves more trustworthy.

Ironically, scientists found they could attract more funds by claiming to be completely uninterested in money, fashioning themselves into ideal recipients for the philanthropic largesse of wealthy elites. But that further necessitated a clear demarcation between the the culture of capitalism and the practice of science, which entailed a reluctance to acquire specimens via purchase.

Old photograph of three men working on an excavation site.
At the turn of the 20th century, museums started funding excavations to unearth dinosaur bones. Museum Wales

As scientists began shunning the commercial specimen trade, museums set about using the generous donations of wealthy philanthropists to mount increasingly ambitious expeditions that allowed scientists to collect fossils themselves.

Dinosaurs in the New Gilded Age

But their ability to control the private market for dinosaur bones did not last forever. With the United States in the middle of what some call a New Gilded Age, it has come roaring back.

Today, the most spectacular dinosaur fossils often hail from the Jehol formation of northeastern China. And more often than not, they are purchased from local farmers who supplement their incomes by hunting for fossils on the side.

As a result, the question of whether commercial incentives erode trust is back with a vengeance. Li Chun, a professor at Beijing’s prestigious Institute for Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology, estimates that more than 80% of all marine reptiles on display in Chinese museums have been deceptively altered to some degree, often to increase their value.

The age-old worry about whether the profit motive threatens to undermine the values of science is real. But it is hardly unique to paleontology.

The spectacular implosion of Theranos, a tech startup that secured more than $700 million in venture capital based on false promises of having developed a better way to conduct blood tests, is just just a particularly high-profile example of commercial deceit paired with scientific misconduct. So much scientific research is now being paid for by people who have a commercial stake in the knowledge produced – and you can see the ramifications in everything from Exxon’s decision to hide its early research on climate change to Moderna’s recent move to begin enforcing its patent on the mRNA technology behind the most effective COVID-19 vaccines.

Is it any wonder that so many people have lost trust in science?

Lukas Rieppel has received funding from the National Science Foundation and the Mellon Foundation, among others.

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Four burning questions about the future of the $16.5B Novo-Catalent deal

To build or to buy? That’s a classic question for pharma boardrooms, and Novo Nordisk is going with both.
Beyond spending billions of dollars to expand…

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To build or to buy? That’s a classic question for pharma boardrooms, and Novo Nordisk is going with both.

Beyond spending billions of dollars to expand its own production capacity for its weight loss drugs, the Danish drugmaker said Monday it will pay $11 billion to acquire three manufacturing plants from Catalent. It’s part of a broader $16.5 billion deal with Novo Holdings, the investment arm of the pharma’s parent group, which agreed to acquire the contract manufacturer and take it private.

It’s a big deal for all parties, with potential ripple effects across the biotech ecosystem. Here’s a look at some of the most pressing questions to watch after Monday’s announcement.

Why did Novo do this?

Novo Holdings isn’t the most obvious buyer for Catalent, particularly after last year’s on-and-off M&A interest from the serial acquirer Danaher. But the deal could benefit both Novo Holdings and Novo Nordisk.

Novo Nordisk’s biggest challenge has been simply making enough of the weight loss drug Wegovy and diabetes therapy Ozempic. On last week’s earnings call, Novo Nordisk CEO Lars Fruergaard Jørgensen said the company isn’t constrained by capital in its efforts to boost manufacturing. Rather, the main challenge is the limited amount of capabilities out there, he said.

“Most pharmaceutical companies in the world would be shopping among the same manufacturers,” he said. “There’s not an unlimited amount of machinery and people to build it.”

While Novo was already one of Catalent’s major customers, the manufacturer has been hamstrung by its own balance sheet. With roughly $5 billion in debt on its books, it’s had to juggle paying down debt with sufficiently investing in its facilities. That’s been particularly challenging in keeping pace with soaring demand for GLP-1 drugs.

Novo, on the other hand, has the balance sheet to funnel as much money as needed into the plants in Italy, Belgium, and Indiana. It’s also struggled to make enough of its popular GLP-1 drugs to meet their soaring demand, with documented shortages of both Ozempic and Wegovy.

The impact won’t be immediate. The parties expect the deal to close near the end of 2024. Novo Nordisk said it expects the three new sites to “gradually increase Novo Nordisk’s filling capacity from 2026 and onwards.”

As for the rest of Catalent — nearly 50 other sites employing thousands of workers — Novo Holdings will take control. The group previously acquired Altasciences in 2021 and Ritedose in 2022, so the Catalent deal builds on a core investing interest in biopharma services, Novo Holdings CEO Kasim Kutay told Endpoints News.

Kasim Kutay

When asked about possible site closures or layoffs, Kutay said the team hasn’t thought about that.

“That’s not our track record. Our track record is to invest in quality businesses and help them grow,” he said. “There’s always stuff to do with any asset you own, but we haven’t bought this company to do some of the stuff you’re talking about.”

What does it mean for Catalent’s customers? 

Until the deal closes, Catalent will operate as a standalone business. After it closes, Novo Nordisk said it will honor its customer obligations at the three sites, a spokesperson said. But they didn’t answer a question about what happens when those contracts expire.

The wrinkle is the long-term future of the three plants that Novo Nordisk is paying for. Those sites don’t exclusively pump out Wegovy, but that could be the logical long-term aim for the Danish drugmaker.

The ideal scenario is that pricing and timelines remain the same for customers, said Nicole Paulk, CEO of the gene therapy startup Siren Biotechnology.

Nicole Paulk

“The name of the group that you’re going to send your check to is now going to be Novo Holdings instead of Catalent, but otherwise everything remains the same,” Paulk told Endpoints. “That’s the best-case scenario.”

In a worst case, Paulk said she feared the new owners could wind up closing sites or laying off Catalent groups. That could create some uncertainty for customers looking for a long-term manufacturing partner.

Are shareholders and regulators happy? 

The pandemic was a wild ride for Catalent’s stock, with shares surging from about $40 to $140 and then crashing back to earth. The $63.50 share price for the takeover is a happy ending depending on the investor.

On that point, the investing giant Elliott Investment Management is satisfied. Marc Steinberg, a partner at Elliott, called the agreement “an outstanding outcome” that “clearly maximizes value for Catalent stockholders” in a statement.

Elliott helped kick off a strategic review last August that culminated in the sale agreement. Compared to Catalent’s stock price before that review started, the deal pays a nearly 40% premium.

Alessandro Maselli

But this is hardly a victory lap for CEO Alessandro Maselli, who took over in July 2022 when Catalent’s stock price was north of $100. Novo’s takeover is a tacit acknowledgment that Maselli could never fully right the ship, as operational problems plagued the company throughout 2023 while it was limited by its debt.

Additional regulatory filings in the next few weeks could give insight into just how competitive the sale process was. William Blair analysts said they don’t expect a competing bidder “given the organic investments already being pursued at other leading CDMOs and the breadth and scale of Catalent’s operations.”

The Blair analysts also noted the companies likely “expect to spend some time educating relevant government agencies” about the deal, given the lengthy closing timeline. Given Novo Nordisk’s ascent — it’s now one of Europe’s most valuable companies — paired with the limited number of large contract manufacturers, antitrust regulators could be interested in taking a close look.

Are Catalent’s problems finally a thing of the past?

Catalent ran into a mix of financial and operational problems over the past year that played no small part in attracting the interest of an activist like Elliott.

Now with a deal in place, how quickly can Novo rectify those problems? Some of the challenges were driven by the demands of being a publicly traded company, like failing to meet investors’ revenue expectations or even filing earnings reports on time.

But Catalent also struggled with its business at times, with a range of manufacturing delays, inspection reports and occasionally writing down acquisitions that didn’t pan out. Novo’s deep pockets will go a long way to a turnaround, but only the future will tell if all these issues are fixed.

Kutay said his team is excited by the opportunity and was satisfied with the due diligence it did on the company.

“We believe we’re buying a strong company with a good management team and good prospects,” Kutay said. “If that wasn’t the case, I don’t think we’d be here.”

Amber Tong and Reynald Castañeda contributed reporting.

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Petrina Kamya, Ph.D., Head of AI Platforms at Insilico Medicine, presents at BIO CEO & Investor Conference

Petrina Kamya, PhD, Head of AI Platforms and President of Insilico Medicine Canada, will present at the BIO CEO & Investor Conference happening Feb….

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Petrina Kamya, PhD, Head of AI Platforms and President of Insilico Medicine Canada, will present at the BIO CEO & Investor Conference happening Feb. 26-27 at the New York Marriott Marquis in New York City. Dr. Kamya will speak as part of the panel “AI within Biopharma: Separating Value from Hype,” on Feb. 27, 1pm ET along with Michael Nally, CEO of Generate: Biomedicines and Liz Schwarzbach, PhD, CBO of BigHat Biosciences.

Credit: Insilico Medicine

Petrina Kamya, PhD, Head of AI Platforms and President of Insilico Medicine Canada, will present at the BIO CEO & Investor Conference happening Feb. 26-27 at the New York Marriott Marquis in New York City. Dr. Kamya will speak as part of the panel “AI within Biopharma: Separating Value from Hype,” on Feb. 27, 1pm ET along with Michael Nally, CEO of Generate: Biomedicines and Liz Schwarzbach, PhD, CBO of BigHat Biosciences.

The session will look at how the latest artificial intelligence (AI) tools – including generative AI and large language models – are currently being used to advance the discovery and design of new drugs, and which technologies are still in development. 

The BIO CEO & Investor Conference brings together over 1,000 attendees and more than 700 companies across industry and institutional investment to discuss the future investment landscape of biotechnology. Sessions focus on topics such as therapeutic advancements, market outlook, and policy priorities.

Insilico Medicine is a leading, clinical stage AI-driven drug discovery company that has raised over $400m in investments since it was founded in 2014. Dr. Kamya leads the development of the Company’s end-to-end generative AI platform, Pharma.AI from Insilico’s AI R&D Center in Montreal. Using modern machine learning techniques in the context of chemistry and biology, the platform has driven the discovery and design of 30+ new therapies, with five in clinical stages – for cancer, fibrosis, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), and COVID-19. The Company’s lead drug, for the chronic, rare lung condition idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, is the first AI-designed drug for an AI-discovered target to reach Phase II clinical trials with patients. Nine of the top 20 pharmaceutical companies have used Insilico’s AI platform to advance their programs, and the Company has a number of major strategic licensing deals around its AI-designed therapeutic assets, including with Sanofi, Exelixis and Menarini. 

 

About Insilico Medicine

Insilico Medicine, a global clinical stage biotechnology company powered by generative AI, is connecting biology, chemistry, and clinical trials analysis using next-generation AI systems. The company has developed AI platforms that utilize deep generative models, reinforcement learning, transformers, and other modern machine learning techniques for novel target discovery and the generation of novel molecular structures with desired properties. Insilico Medicine is developing breakthrough solutions to discover and develop innovative drugs for cancer, fibrosis, immunity, central nervous system diseases, infectious diseases, autoimmune diseases, and aging-related diseases. www.insilico.com 


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Another country is getting ready to launch a visa for digital nomads

Early reports are saying Japan will soon have a digital nomad visa for high-earning foreigners.

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Over the last decade, the explosion of remote work that came as a result of improved technology and the pandemic has allowed an increasing number of people to become digital nomads. 

When looked at more broadly as anyone not required to come into a fixed office but instead moves between different locations such as the home and the coffee shop, the latest estimate shows that there were more than 35 million such workers in the world by the end of 2023 while over half of those come from the United States.

Related: There is a new list of cities that are best for digital nomads

While remote work has also allowed many to move to cheaper places and travel around the world while still bringing in income, working outside of one's home country requires either dual citizenship or work authorization — the global shift toward remote work has pushed many countries to launch specific digital nomad visas to boost their economies and bring in new residents.

Japan is a very popular destination for U.S. tourists. 

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This popular vacation destination will soon have a nomad visa

Spain, Portugal, Indonesia, Malaysia, Costa Rica, Brazil, Latvia and Malta are some of the countries currently offering specific visas for foreigners who want to live there while bringing in income from abroad.

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With the exception of a few, Asian countries generally have stricter immigration laws and were much slower to launch these types of visas that some of the countries with weaker economies had as far back as 2015. As first reported by the Japan Times, the country's Immigration Services Agency ended up making the leap toward a visa for those who can earn more than ¥10 million ($68,300 USD) with income from another country.

The Japanese government has not yet worked out the specifics of how long the visa will be valid for or how much it will cost — public comment on the proposal is being accepted throughout next week. 

That said, early reports say the visa will be shorter than the typical digital nomad option that allows foreigners to live in a country for several years. The visa will reportedly be valid for six months or slightly longer but still no more than a year — along with the ability to work, this allows some to stay beyond the 90-day tourist period typically afforded to those from countries with visa-free agreements.

'Not be given a residence card of residence certificate'

While one will be able to reapply for the visa after the time runs out, this can only be done by exiting the country and being away for six months before coming back again — becoming a permanent resident on the pathway to citizenship is an entirely different process with much more strict requirements.

"Those living in Japan with the digital nomad visa will not be given a residence card or a residence certificate, which provide access to certain government benefits," reports the news outlet. "The visa cannot be renewed and must be reapplied for, with this only possible six months after leaving the countr

The visa will reportedly start in March and also allow holders to bring their spouses and families with them. To start using the visa, holders will also need to purchase private health insurance from their home country while taxes on any money one earns will also need to be paid through one's home country.

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