Janelia researchers pursue long-term projects of high significance—projects that could not fit within the confines of a standard grant proposal. Currently, Janelia scientists are working on some of science's most challenging problems: discovering the basic rules and mechanisms of the brain's information-processing system and developing optical, biological, and computational technologies for creating and interpreting biological images.
At Janelia, leading scientists can pursue long-range research projects in a campus specially designed to bring together researchers from disparate disciplines. Biologists work alongside computer scientists, engineers, physicists, and chemists in an environment free of the traditional disciplinary boundaries one might encounter in academia. Research teams are small and team leaders are actively involved in research; they are not just managing it or guiding it. HHMI provides funding for all research at Janelia.
The planning for Janelia was carried out over a 5-year period prior to the campus’s opening in 2006. The planning and development phase offered an opportunity to define and create an environment to foster basic biomedical research in a manner complementary to and synergistic with HHMI's existing research programs and those of its host institutions. HHMI—most notably through its flagship Investigator Program—provides long-term, flexible funding that enables its researchers to pursue their scientific interests wherever they lead.
Despite the success of HHMI’s research program, the Institute’s leadership felt the time had come to consider new models for scientific research. It would have been easy to stick with the status quo. Instead, HHMI took the more challenging course of action and embarked on the development of Janelia.
Janelia's overall objective is to pursue fundamental problems in basic biomedical research that are difficult to approach in academia and industry, because:
- They require expertise from disparate areas.
- They are too long-term for standard funding mechanisms.
- They are outside the current priorities of other funding agencies.
In defining the initial scientific goals for the campus, HHMI sought to identify important biomedical problems for which future progress required technological innovation. After holding a series of workshops and consulting with its advisory committee, HHMI tightened its focus to two synergistic areas that were particularly well matched to the Janelia environment:
- The identification of general principles that govern how information is processed by neuronal circuits.
- The development of imaging technologies and computational methods for image analysis.
HHMI continues to remain open to new research ideas brought forth by talented individuals.
The MRC LMB and Bell Labs are generally considered to have been the most successful research institutions in biology and electronics, respectively, and although neither currently exists in its original form, they have served as useful models for Janelia. Despite the fact that one of these institutions was a small public-sector biological research laboratory and the other a large private-sector electronics enterprise, they shared a surprisingly wide range of operating principles:
- Individual research groups were small. At the MRC LMB and Bell Labs, small group size was considered essential to promote collaboration and communication between groups as well as good mentoring.
- Group leaders were active bench scientists. Group leaders at the MRC LMB and Bell Labs were active bench scientists who carried out experimental work with their own hands. This was true even for Nobel Prize winners and department chairs.
- Research was internally funded. All research funding at the MRC LMB and Bell Labs was provided from internal sources at a dependable and generous level. Outside grant applications were not permitted, nor was there any obvious pressure for the work to be of immediate medical relevance or commercial value.
- Excellent support facilities and infrastructure were provided. At both the MRC LMB and Bell Labs, there was core support for routine functions, such as glassware washing, media preparation, and central stores as well as for sophisticated functions such as instrumentation design and fabrication. This enabled individuals and small groups to function effectively and to focus on creative activities.
- Staff turnover was high and tenure limited. Many scientists were at an "early career stage" and moved on to university positions after 5-10 years. The ones who remained for their entire career continued to be active researchers with their own hands.
- Originality, creativity, and collegiality were valued and supported. The MRC LMB and Bell Labs emphasized tackling difficult and important research problems. Management at both institutions were knowledgeable with the work carried out under their direction and could evaluate the potential of those who had not yet achieved external recognition.
The Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology
The Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England, was founded in 1947 and was the world’s leading molecular biology research center for a 30-year period between 1950 and 1980.
Although the laboratory never had more than a total of 250 scientists and support staff, or more than 30,000 sq. ft. of laboratory space, its scientists were awarded the Nobel Prize on eight separate occasions for discoveries made during this 30-year period that included determining the structure of DNA, determining the three-dimensional structure of a protein using X-ray crystallography, developing methods for sequencing DNA, developing of monoclonal antibodies, and establishing of C. elegans as a model system and its use to study cell death.
The laboratory was also a major international center for training; four current HHMI investigators obtained their Ph.D. degrees at the laboratory and 12 did postdoctoral work there—a far higher number than any other foreign institution.
AT&T's Bell Laboratories (now known as Lucent Technologies' Bell Labs), founded in the 1920s, is generally regarded as having been the most successful industrial research laboratory; many important advances in solid state physics and electronics were made there, including development of the transistor and the laser.
The European Molecular Biology Laboratory
The European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) was established in 1974 and is supported by 20 countries, including nearly all of Western Europe and Israel.
It currently has about 900 employees and is located about 20 minutes outside Heidelberg, Germany, on top of a hill in a state park surrounded by residential neighborhoods. The nearest stores and restaurants are located about a mile away. The EMBL is generally considered one of the best research laboratories in Europe and arguably runs the most competitive graduate program in the fields of molecular and cell biology and computational biology in Europe, with a total of about 200 Ph.D. students.
At the EMBL, group leaders have an initial 5-year term, which is almost always renewed for a terminal 4-year term, but there is no tenure. About 15 percent of the group leaders are given "indefinite" appointments that can be terminated by the director with 4 years' notice. These appointments are given only to individuals who take on administrative duties (for example, program coordinator or head of graduate program).
It is believed that requiring nearly all group leaders to turn over with the same term, regardless of the perception of their scientific merit, reduces internal competition and increases cooperation between groups.
Group leaders generally receive funding for four or five technicians or postdoctoral associates. They are also allowed to add one new Ph.D. student per year, and almost all do. They can accept externally funded postdoctoral fellows and apply for external grants, although their opportunities are limited since they are often ineligible for host country grant programs. They can have as many people in their group as they are willing to fit into their space.
Average group size for mature groups is about 10. There is also a "team leader" position, a 3-year appointment used mainly as a way of extending time for productive postdoctoral fellows. There is a range of opinions among those at the EMBL about the wisdom of allowing outside funding.
Carnegie Institution of Washington, Department of Embryology
Founded in 1913, this research laboratory has a long-standing association with the Johns Hopkins University and is located on its Homewood campus in Baltimore.
The department consists of eight staff members, two staff associates, 25 postdoctoral fellows, 21 graduate students, and approximately 54 support staff (technicians, lab aides, maintenance personnel, and administrative staff). Its scientists employ molecular and genetic approaches to study basic problems in cell and developmental biology.
Carnegie is notable as a first-class U.S. research institute (two of its eight group leaders are HHMI investigators) that does not grant tenure. Staff members have 5-year appointments that are renewable at the discretion of the director. Group size—whether for a newly appointed group leader or the director—is limited to eight additional researchers. Staff members all hold adjunct faculty appointments at Hopkins.
The staff associates have a similar arrangement to that we have set up for Janelia Farm fellows—a 5-year appointment and a group size of three. There is excellent support for research infrastructure, and all large equipment is shared. The department holds weekly research colloquia in which its scientists present their work internally. The result is a highly interactive and unusually collegial environment. One-half of the funding comes from outside sources (HHMI and federal grants).
Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL)
Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) is a research and educational institution that was founded at the turn of the last century and now has 48 research faculty members. It has research programs focusing on cancer, neuroscience, plant biology, quantitative biology, genomics, and bioinformatics, and it has a broad educational mission, including a doctoral program, the Watson School of Biological Sciences. CSHL is located on Long Island about an hour outside New York City.
CSHL does not offer tenure but allows the most successful scientists to be promoted to a full professor position. These professors are given rolling 5-year appointments—that is, they can be given a 5-year terminal appointment at any time at the discretion of the director. Group size varies from two to 20. About 80 percent of funding comes from external sources.
In addition to providing an example of a physically isolated, freestanding research institution that has been scientifically successful without granting tenure, CSHL provides a useful role model of how to overcome physical and intellectual isolation as well as provide a service to the scientific community by means of an extensive program of scientific conferences and training courses. About 30 advanced courses (two to three weeks) and 25 scientific conferences (three to six days) are held on campus each year, bringing about 8,000 visitors to the laboratory.
“Every now and then I receive visits from earnest men and women armed with questionnaires and tape recorders who want to find out what made the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge (where I work) so remarkably creative. They come from the social sciences and seek their Holy Grail in interdisciplinary organization. I feel tempted to draw their attention to 15th-century Florence with a population of less than 50,000, from which emerged Leonardo,Michelangelo, Raphael, Ghiberti, Brunelleschi, Alberti, and other great artists. Had my questioners investigated whether the rulers of Florence had created an interdisciplinary organization of painters, sculptors, architects, and poets to bring to life this flowering of great art? Or had they found out how the 19th-century municipality of Paris had planned Impressionism, so as to produce Renoir, Cézanne, Degas, Monet, Manet, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Seurat? My questions are not as absurd as they seem, because creativity in science, as in the arts, cannot be organized. It arises spontaneously from individual talent. Well-run laboratories can foster it, but hierarchical organization, inflexible, bureaucratic rules, and mounds of futile paperwork can kill it. Discoveries cannot be planned; they pop up, like Puck, in unexpected corners.”
“I have indeed actively tried to avoid both teaching and administrative work. This was partly because I thought I would be no good at them, but also out of selfishness. I do not enjoy them, whereas I find research most enjoyable and rewarding. Of the three main activities involved in scientific research, thinking, talking and doing, I much prefer the last and am probably best at it. I am all right at thinking, but not much good at the talking. ‘Doing’ for a scientist implies doing experiments, and I managed to work in the laboratory as my main occupation from when I started as a Ph.D. student until I retired. Unlike most of my scientific colleagues, I was not academically brilliant. … However, when it came to research where experiments were of paramount importance and fairly narrow specialization was helpful, I managed to hold my own ...”
“Day science calls into play arguments that mesh like gears, results that have the force of certainty…. Conscious of its progress, proud of its past, sure of its future, day science advances in light and glory. By contrast, night science wanders blind. It hesitates, stumbles, recoils, sweats, wakes with a start. Doubting everything, it is forever trying to find itself, question itself, pull itself back together. Night science is a sort of workshop of the possible where what will become the building material of science is worked out.”
“The significant point is that the MRC was prepared to finance longterm work. It took Perutz twenty-three years…to solve the structure of haemoglobin, and many chemists and biologists thought he was wasting his time. It wasn’t certain, when he began, that proteins even had a stable structure…It wasn’t regarded as foolhardy to take on projects when you couldn’t necessarily see how you were going to carry them out, as long as they were important enough. You didn’t — and still don’t — have to justify everything in advance; you were just given the time, and a limited amount of space and resources, to get on with it…
It was an environment that suited me perfectly. I don’t think I would have survived a conventional academic career, juggling teaching, research and administration in a university. I was incredibly lucky to end up where I did…”
This booklet, written in 2003, describes the intellectual foundations of the Janelia program; the approaches that HHMI has used to determine the scientific focus of the campus; and the philosophy that guided design of the campus, which includes a "landscape" laboratory building, conference facilities, and housing for visiting scientists.
Download a PDF of the report (11.6MB).
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