The new laboratory complex will occupy a 281-acre site in Virginia, called Janelia Farm, located some eight miles north of Dulles International Airport. HHMI expects to spend at least $500 million over the next decade to construct and operate the facility.
Clearly a major, perhaps defining, project for his administration, Cech reasons that HHMI's uniqueness in the biomedical research world enables it, with financial resources second only to NIH itself and the flexibility that comes from being a private organization, to undertake projects that can transform the biomedical sciences, not just move them along a little faster.
David A. Clayton, a developmental biologist, began thinking along these lines shortly after he joined HHMI as a senior scientific officer in 1996, coming from Stanford University. "I had begun to realize how challenging a task it is to deploy state-of-the-art technologies to researchers in the field," recalls Clayton, who is now HHMI's vice president for science development. The initial cost is actually the least of it, he explainsalthough electron microscopes, tandem mass spectrometers and the like certainly aren't cheap. "First, you have to find the space to put the machineand there isn't any academic institution I know of where space is not at a premium. Then, you have to provide a protected environment for it, with air conditioning, seismic isolation and so forthwhich is very hard if you have an old building, as most university buildings are. You soon find that the environment is costing you several times the cost of the instrument itself.
"Finally," says Clayton, "you have to find the technicians and engineers who know how to operate the machine and keep it in repair. That's the real challenge because it's expensive and time-consuming to train these peopleand then if they're good, the pharmaceutical or biotechnology companies come knocking at their doors, offering them commercial-sector salaries that the academics can't hope to match."
Given that reality, he says, one obvious solution was consolidation: Use HHMI's considerable resources to establish a central campus equipped with an excellent staff and the best instrumentationand then bring the scientists to the machines instead of the machines to the scientists.
Cech was taken with Clayton's idea as soon as he heard it; establishing an HHMI research campus seemed to offer exactly the new direction he was looking for. "So David and I talked about it before I started as president," says Cech, "and then the idea matured as we continued to discuss it with lots of people."
An active participant in those discussions was geneticist Gerald M. Rubin, an HHMI investigator at the University of California, Berkeley whom Cech was in the process of recruiting as the Institute's vice president for biomedical research. "I liked the concept of doing something outside the usual process," says Rubin. "It made the job seem more intellectually challenging."
Rubin was especially intrigued by the evolving strategy for staffing the new campus. In addition to a resident staff of about 240 scientists, there would be an active program for visiting scientists. Some visitors would come for just a week or so to attend a workshop or to brush up on a new software technique. Other visitors would come for about a month and bring specimens and other materials for testing. Still others might come for a whole sabbatical year or longer. No one on the campus, however, would have anything like tenure; the expectation is that most would eventually move on.
Perpetual turnover would, presumably, help ensure the intellectual vitality of the campus, since new visitors would constantly bring fresh ideas with them. It would likewise ensure the rapid dissemination of any technologies developed there, since visitors would be taking ideas home with them.
Rubin saw another opportunity. "It's an experience we've all had," he explains. "You're at a meeting, maybe sitting around with some colleagues in a bar, and you get an idea for a great research project you could do togetherbut you can't just go out and do the project. First you've got to scrape up funding from government agenciesand then you've got to struggle to coordinate the efforts of team members who are scattered among home institutions all over the country, if not the world.
"So what's needed is a place for people to come togethernot just to have a meeting but to work together collaboratively over an extended period of time," says Rubin. The new HHMI campus can offer exactly that opportunity. By building enough capacity in the beginning, Rubin points out, HHMI can operate the new campus partially as a "research hotel," providing space and resources for scientists to come for several years and tackle a hot new idea as a group. With people rotating through instead of spending their entire careers there, the place would always have lab spaces opening up.
Cech took office as HHMI's president on January 1, 2000, the same day that Clayton and Rubin assumed their current posts. In the months that followed, says Cech, the HHMI Trustees also proved to be enthusiastic about the new program and a formal proposal was developed, followed by the site selection. Then, in December 2000, HHMI purchased Janelia Farm from the Dutch software maker Baan Companies for $53.7 million.
Plans for the new campus are continuing to evolve. Take the obvious issue of commercialization, for example: Will visitors who want to commercialize technologies they've developed at the campus be allowed or even encouraged by HHMI to form start-up companies? "We haven't gotten far enough along to answer that," says Clayton, "although obviously we'll have to work it through to make sure we're staying true to HHMI's mission and to the rules for not-for-profit organizations."
Some principles are settled, however. One is that the new campus will not be restricted to the existing cadre of HHMI investigators; instead, it will be open to researchers from all over the world. Another is that cooperative research and cross-disciplinary thinking really will be given the highest priority. "We'll be making every effort to mix engineers, biologists and so on," says Cech. "We'll even be working with the architects to make sure the physical layouts of the buildings are such that people can't pull away into isolated groups. . . . But we will also have to find people who genuinely buy into the cooperative model. It may not be for everyone; some researchers work best as loners. But if everyone on the campus is a loner, then this experiment will fail.
"At a typical university," Cech adds, "if someone's publications are all collaborations, he or she will often have trouble getting promoted. But at Janelia Farm, if we see that someone's papers are all collaborations, we can say, 'This is wonderful!'"
Photos: William K. Geiger, Kay Chernush, Paul Fetters
this story in Acrobat PDF format.
Reprinted from the HHMI Bulletin,
July 2001, pages 10-15.
©2001 Howard Hughes Medical Institute
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