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HHMI Bets the Farm


Gerry Rubin doesn't want to follow in the footsteps of greatness, thank you very much. As director of the Janelia Farm Research Campus, a major investment from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to build its own freestanding scientific center, Rubin has spent the last several years trying to figure out all the rules inherent in research institutions — and how to break them. "My greatest failure would be to have someone say we just made another Salk Institute or Whitehead Institute," he says. "Those are great institutions, but [HHMI] already supports people at those institutions."

In fact, finding a new way to get science done was so critical to the establishment of Janelia Farm that the hows were answered long before anyone bothered to define its scientific focus.

That's because Janelia wasn't started to be just another well-funded research center. The major gap in the US scientific landscape, says Rubin, "was the sort of blue-sky, long-range interdisciplinary research" — the type of research, he adds, that doesn't fare well in a system that encourages the completion of research in five-year grant cycles. "That was true then, when the NIH was expanding, and it's certainly true now in this current era when NIH is going to have trouble going to new initiatives," he says. "HHMI is one of the few organizations that has the resources to try something like this."

Finding a Model

In thinking about the way Janelia Farm would work, Rubin and his HHMI colleagues considered noteworthy research institutes that had made their mark in the past, or in other fields. Bell Labs and the UK's Medical Research Council emerged as two institutions where great science — truly high-risk, big-picture science — was facilitated.

Bell Labs and the MRC had several common practices that helped inform the policies Rubin would set in place for the Farm. For one thing, neither followed the academic tenure model. "That quickly convinced us that you didn't have to give people lifelong tenure to get top-notch scientists," Rubin says. Both institutions had labs with small groups; instead of larger groups, they provided a lot of support infrastructure through core or administrative facilities. Finally, neither research organization allowed scientists to write grants; all funding was simply provided by the center.

These practices lent themselves particularly well to the kind of interdisciplinary Shangri-la that Rubin had in mind. Perhaps the most important factor was group size. "People wanted to work on big problems, and their small groups weren't big enough to do that so [they were] forced to interact with other groups," Rubin says. That policy has since been implemented at the Farm, where group leaders may have no more than six people on their teams, yet are expected to tackle expansive scientific problems. Researchers put off by the group size restriction might be won over by the other policy that's had everyone talking since HHMI first announced its intention to build Janelia Farm: no grant writing. Rubin's view is simple: scientists should focus on science. Grant writing is a notorious time sink that takes lab leaders away from their work, so it would not be a part of this new institute. Instead, HHMI provides sufficient funding — about $1 million annually in direct costs — to each group leader.

To be sure, this was not the kind of model that would appeal to all scientists — especially, Rubin thought, to scientists who already had tenure at a university or academic research center. The entire model was something of a gamble. "My view going into this was if it falls flat for 90 percent of the people and makes sense to 10 percent of people," Rubin says, that would be fine with him. "We want people who passionately believe in this way of doing science."

Making It Happen

Wishing might not make it so, but a $500 million investment from HHMI for the shiny new Janelia Farm facility certainly was a start. The institute is located on nearly 700 acres of land in Ashburn, Va., along the Potomac River. As plans were put in place with architects and designers, Rubin went on with the planning stages for what kind of science would actually be investigated at the Farm.

After discussions with more than 100 scientists, two topics surfaced that fulfilled the Farm vision: risky science that wasn't already on the NIH radar, and a field that was desperately in need of new technology breakthroughs. After considering other scientific areas including membrane proteins and single-cell biochemistry, Rubin and the HHMI group selected neuroscience and the related field of imaging technology as the winners.

With a topic and a facility in the works, Rubin set out to populate Janelia Farm. As it turned out, response to the idea was very positive, even among scientists who had tenure or chair positions. Early scores for group leaders — who are hired with renewable six-year posts — included computational biologists Sean Eddy, an HHMI investigator at Washington University, and Gene Myers, who was teaching at the University of California, Berkeley, at the time. The mandate to build an interdisciplinary team governed the process: "Biology is represented, but it's a minority," Rubin says of the scientists' backgrounds. Researchers came from computer science, mathematics, and physics, he adds. Other group leaders are Julie Simpson, a Drosophila expert; Karel Svoboda, who specializes in mouse brains; and Eric Betzig, an imaging guru, to name a few.

Sean Eddy says that Rubin's push for interdisciplinary, interactive teams is already working, despite the fact that scientists have been in their labs for just a few weeks. "A lot of little alliances are being talked about and formed already," says the computational genomics expert, adding that he's trying to learn the neuroscience side of things as fast as he can. Early opportunities for working together, he says, appear to be in areas such as signal processing, for which there's no model yet in brain studies, as well as image reconstruction.

Scientists will be able to focus exclusively on those collaborations thanks to the generous core facilities provided at Janelia. Everything from glass washing to cloning to administrative support is centrally organized rather than a part of each group leader's lab. "This place is built for a guy like me to actually be able to work with my own hands," Eddy says.

Clearly, enthusiasm runs rampant at the Farm. But even Rubin acknowledges that the battle is far from won. "It's still an experiment," he says. "There are still lots of things that could make it not work out exactly the way we envisioned."

In brief

Name: Janelia Farm Research Campus
Host: Howard Hughes Medical Institute
Director: Gerry Rubin
Began: Under discussion since around 2000, the building opened up this summer and the last bits of construction were slated to be finished up for an official kick-off this fall.
Staff: Currently, the Farm has 10 group leaders in addition to five fellows and a number of lab members, support staff, and visiting scientists. At capacity, which Janelia is expected to reach in 2009, there will be a total of 250 permanent research staff, including 24 group leaders. There are also facilities to house as many as 100 visiting scientists, who may stay anywhere from a week to two years.
Funding stats: The Farm building itself represents a $500 million outlay from HHMI, which funds more than $600 million in research every year. Scientists at the Farm will not write grants; their research will be supported directly by Howard Hughes funding.
Key research areas: Studying general principles governing neuronal circuits and how they process and store information; also, development of imaging technologies and computational methods for analyzing images
Core facilities: Anatomy and histology; cell and tissue culture; Drosophila; electron microscopy; computing; glass washing and sterilization; instrument design and fabrication; light microscopy; media prep; and molecular biology

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