Science Journal: Virginia lab putting big money into pure research

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How the human brain works is one of the great unsolved mysteries of science. How does it store and retrieve information? Why does mental acuity decline with age? What is happening to your neurons as you read this?

These are questions scientists will tackle at a $500 million laboratory that officially opens next month with the aim to support an increasingly orphaned mission in medicine: long-term research. Even the most ambitious government grants generally support projects of just three to five years and increasingly are for "more applied" science, says Gerald M. Rubin, director of the new lab. Corporate research typically demands even more immediate, tangible results.

Largely missing from the mix, he says, is support for scientists to follow their instincts on big, tough problems without the pressure to meet grant deadlines or hit quarterly milestones. "Real breakthroughs come from unexpected or unintended observations, where someone was smart enough to see what they had and then follow up," he adds. It took 23 years for scientists to unravel the structure of hemoglobin, a seminal achievement a half-century ago that earned a Nobel prize. Today, Dr. Rubin argues, such an effort would be hard-pressed to find support.

Enter the Janelia Farm Research Campus. Situated on a former farm in Ashburn, Va., it is the first stand-alone laboratory of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, a Chevy Chase, Md., philanthropy that is one of the world's largest funders of basic medical research.

The formula at Janelia Farm is to attract the brightest scientists with generous funding and an idyllic, collaborative environment that aims to limit distractions: no teaching or administrative duties, no writing grant proposals and no immediate expectations of a commercial payoff. "I think of it as a biotech start-up whose main product is new, basic knowledge and whose investors are infinitely patient," says Dr. Rubin. In addition to taking on the brain, scientists will develop new tools, such as microscopes that can see inside cells and computer algorithms for analyzing biological images.

Mr. Hughes, the eccentric aviator and founder of Hughes Aircraft, launched HHMI in 1953 amid criticism that it was mostly a tax shelter. Its prominence as a medical philanthropy dates to 1985, nine years after his death, when the sale of Hughes Aircraft to General Motors added $5 billion to the institute's coffers. Until now, HHMI has operated as a virtual institute, providing grants for more than 300 investigators at some 70 academic research centers in the U.S., a highly regarded program that will continue. HHMI investigators have won 10 Nobel prizes. In recent years, growth of the endowment (now about $16 billion) prompted HHMI officials to expand its research portfolio, and build a facility for it.

The goal is to create the kind of research environment once characteristic of Bell Labs and the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge, England. In their heyday, those organizations spawned such discoveries as the transistor (Bell Labs) and the DNA double-helix (MBC-LMB), and garnered a slew of Nobel prizes.

Among their critical traits: small research groups of three to six people, where principal investigators spend most of their time doing hands-on science, and a culture that encouraged collaboration among scientists from varied backgrounds and disciplines. By contrast, leaders of many academic labs rarely touch a pipette. Molecular biologists, chemists, geneticists and computer scientists typically work in different departments with few incentives to collaborate.

The new lab is a dramatic, three-story 900-foot long curvilinear structure designed by the architect Rafael Vinoly. Glass walls run the full length of each tier and are reflected in a man-made pond. Inside, the lab has features designed to foster conversation among researchers: an expansive coffee bar with a 25-foot marble counter inlaid with primordial squid fossils, which morphs into a pub at night, complete with white boards.

Some 500 scientists have applied so far for what will be 24 "group leaders" when the lab is fully staffed by 2010. Thirty candidates have been invited for interviews, which include an hour-long presentation to a 25-person committee of senior scientists and Nobel laureates. Ten scientists are now on board. Group leaders get $10 million to support labs of up to six people for eight years; a review after six years determines whether they continue.

Among the first scientists to sign on is Eugene Myers, who led development of computer algorithms behind Celera's effort to decode the human genome. He will lead a group on biological imaging at Janelia Farm. "We have the muscle and the people to do big science in a way I can't see it happening anywhere else," he says.

Of course, Dr. Rubin says, plenty of important science gets done in more-conventional settings. The new facility is an experiment in creative research. "Some scientists are driven more the way you think an artist or a novelist is driven," he says. "They look on it as a creative pursuit."


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