by Andre on 4 November 2006
The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) is the largest private funder of biomedical research in the US and the scientists they fund are among the best in the world. According to their website
It believes that science is facilitated best by providing outstanding researchers with the resources and flexibility to follow their scientific instincts and to pursue new opportunities as soon as they arise.
I like this approach, not just because it’s great for the scientists working with that kind of support, but also because it leads to great achievements.
Now, there’s an exciting new development at HHMI: rather than only funding researchers at existing institutions, it has decided to open its own lab in Ashburn, Virginia called the Janelia Farm research campus. The lab is designed to foster collaboration and will involve a wide range of researchers including physicists, biochemists, mathematicians, biologists, and engineers to advance projects focussed on information processing in neuronal circuits, imaging technologies, and methods for image processing to go along with them. They’ve already hired an impressive array of scientists and they’re still looking for more.
I also approve of the description of the lab’s planning. Gerald Rubin, the director of the new facility was inspired especially by two almost legendary labs.
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.
In its heyday, Bell Labs was a physics powerhouse and it’s exciting that someone is designing an interdisciplinary research center that will try to incorporate some of the things that made it successful. Rubin identifies small group size to encourage good mentoring and collaboration and active research by group leaders as two important factors shared by both the MRC and Bell Labs.
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.
It will be very interesting to see how this works out. If I had to guess, I would say very well.