Groundbreaking for HHMI's interdisciplinary biomedical research campus, Janelia Farm, took place May 5, 2003 (see "Transforming the Research Landscape"). When completed in 2006, the facility will house a variety of scientific programs that will integrate many disciplines.
In helping to plan the Janelia Farm campus, HHMI Vice President Gerald Rubintapped in May to be director of the new facilitybegan by asking himself which of the world's many scientific-research institutions had proved most productive in the past, and he came up with two. The first was the Medical Research Council (MRC) Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England, which he describes as "the world's leading molecular biology research center for a 30-year period, between 1950 and 1980." During that time, the MRC's scientists, who never numbered more than 300 at any one time, made landmark discoveries that won them the Nobel Prize on eight separate occasions. The second was AT&T's Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey, the site of many important advances in solid-state physics and electronics, including the development of the transistor and the laser.
Despite the differences in their fields of inquiry, these two labs shared a wide range of operating principles, according to Rubin. Although the MRC lab was a small operation in the public sector while Bell Labs was a large institution in the private sector, individual research groups were kept small in both places. At the MRC, one group leader worked with two to six other scientists; at Bell Labs, a group leader typically had one or two. "Small group size was considered essential to promote collaboration and communication, as well as good mentoring," Rubin says. "In contrast, the average HHMI investigator today has a group size of about 15."
Another characteristic feature of the two labs was that "group leaders were active bench scientists; that is, they carried out experimental work with their own hands, even if they were Nobel Prize winners," Rubin points out. By contrast, starting assistant professors at many of the "best" universities today are often advised by their senior colleagues that it would be counterproductive for them to work at the bench. "The period when a young scientist can be both fully independent and directly engaged in the conduct of research, as opposed to simply directing the work of others, has been greatly shortened and in some cases totally eliminated," he says.
Rubin is particularly concerned about these young scientists, many of whom want to continue working on their own experiments but are pressured into very different activities: motivating and supervising others, writing grant applications, hiring people, teaching, attending meetings or doing other types of administrative work. "It's like being trained to be a goldsmith, then having to run a jewelry store!" he declares. While some scientists manage this balancing act successfully, "it's not for everyone."
In both the MRC and Bell Labs, all research was funded by internal sources; outside grant applications were not permitted. The emphasis was on "tackling difficult and important research problems, as opposed to more typical criteria such as publication number, service on editorial boards and speaking invitations," Rubin says. Finally, tenure was either limited (MRC) or nonexistent (Bell Labs). This meant that in both places the staff kept turning over. "Most scientists were at an early career stage," he says. "They generally moved on to university positions after 5 to 10 years."
"No institution in operation today fully fits the above description," Rubin maintains. The funding mechanism that supported Bell Labs was destroyed by the breakup of the AT&T monopoly, and the MRC suffered numerous changes after the British civil service imposed a strict tenure system. "Only a private organization with a large endowment, such as HHMI, could support such an enterprise," he says. "This offers the Institute the opportunity to create a truly unique research facility."
That opportunity will in fact be pursued at Janelia Farm, which will be very different from the other centers that are going up at present, according to Rubin. "It will be modeled directly after the MRC and Bell Labs," he says. "We will have no departmental structure, no lifelong tenure. No undergraduates. No classroom teaching. No committees. No need to seek outside funding. But plenty of time for one-on-one mentoring and meaningful interaction with people from other disciplines. The scientists will be encouraged to tackle difficult problems. And since they won't need to worry about guiding the research of a large group of scientists in their labs, they will be expected to spend most of their time working in the lab with their own hands."
Illustration: Mick Wiggins
this story in Acrobat PDF format.
Reprinted from the HHMI Bulletin,
June 2003, pages 24-28.
©2003 Howard Hughes Medical Institute