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Gerry Rubin talks with Janelia Farm architect Rafael Viñoly
In execution, the Janelia Farm Research Campus is stunningly state-of-the-art, yet in concept it harks back to the heyday of legendary research-and-development powerhouses like the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology (MRC-LMB) in Cambridge, England, and AT&T's Bell Labs in Murray Hill, New Jersey.
In those productive settings, small groups of leading scientists, internally funded and free of teaching and administrative chores, made revolutionary discoveries and won Nobel Prizes. Importantly, senior scientists worked at the lab bench alongside postdocs and junior researchers.
MRC-LMB scientists determined the structure of DNA and conceptualized the genetic code, discovered messenger RNA, and invented techniques to produce monoclonal antibodies en masse and sequence DNA, among other seminal advances. Bell Labs was the birthplace of the transistor, the laser, and the UNIX operating system.
Such examples inspired HHMI to create Janelia as an extra dimension, beyond the Institute's funding of more than 300 scientists at institutions around the country. These HHMI investigators, though assured of financial support, are limited by what Rubin calls a “conservative” academic culture that places individual achievement above collaboration and interdisciplinary research. Quoting a mentor, Rubin says, “It's amazing how much more you can accomplish if you don't care who gets the credit.”
As Rubin wrote in an opinion piece in the April 2006 issue of Cell, “We think of [Janelia] as an experiment.” He adds, “We may not get it exactly right at first,” but he hopes that historians will say that “truly unanticipated discoveries started coming out after 5 or 10 years … and those discoveries might never have been made in another setting.”