Several years after the initial concept was first announced, firm details are starting to emerge about the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s planned new research campus, Janelia Farm, located in Virginia about 30 miles west of Washington, DC. Director Gerry Rubin — best known in this field as Berkeley’s Drosophila king — says the institute’s research direction, which was murky at the start and was expected to include a significant genomics focus, has been solidified. Farm scientists will be “trying to understand the basic principles by which information is stored and processed in neural systems” using in particular optical imaging technology, Rubin says. The other major revelation is that the first six group leaders, who will relocate to the Farm when it officially opens in July of 2006, have been hired. Well-known genomics scientists Sean Eddy of Washington University in St. Louis and Gene Myers at Berkeley will be among the first to move in, Rubin confirms.
The neuroscience focus was selected for its high-risk and slow payoff characteristics, Rubin says. “We’re willing to do things that may not have medical implications for 10 to 20 years,” he notes, adding that because of Janelia Farm’s private funding, it makes sense to stay away from research that is well funded by organizations such as NIH. “NIH grants are notorious that if it’s too risky you won’t get funded,” he says. Rubin thinks of Janelia Farm as “a biotech startup whose product is new basic knowledge that has infinitely patient venture capitalists.” It’s based on models like Bell Labs or Xerox PARC, which “require someone who’s going to fund high-risk research patiently — not someone who’s going to say, ‘Well, you haven’t had any papers for three years, we’re going to pull the plug,’” Rubin says.
Following on that philosophy, it’s the Farm’s culture that will be perhaps most unique. Rubin wants group leaders to be immersed in science, rather than in managing a lab; to accomplish that, group leaders have a cap of six lab members, and are not allowed to apply for outside grants. “We want a place where people are free from the need to convince a third-party payer [to fund their research],” he says. Leaders will receive standard HHMI funding, Rubin says — about $1 million annually in direct costs.
Ultimately, Rubin says, the Farm aims to have 24 group leaders by 2010, and the campus will represent about 10 percent of HHMI’s research efforts. Collaboration will be given priority; Rubin notes that about a quarter of the Farm’s positions will be held for visiting scientists, and that the campus was designed with 30 apartments “so we can give them housing on site,” he says. “We can bring scientists from all over the world to come collaborate with each other and with our people.”
Such a culture will surely be different from what most scientists are accustomed to, but it seems to have appeal — Rubin says the first six group leaders were chosen from a field of 300 applicants. Among the successful candidates is Sean Eddy, an associate professor and current HHMI investigator in the Center for Genome Sciences at Washington University’s School of Medicine. Eddy says he made up his mind about this opportunity when he first heard Rubin pitch the idea in 2000 or 2001 at an HHMI meeting. “Most of the investigators, I think, reacted in horror,” he recalls. But to Eddy, the culture was exactly what he was looking for. “I’m … at a major medical school. The push on me is to build a bigger and bigger lab, but actually, I think I would be more productive and more happy with a smaller group,” he says.
The institute’s focus, which Eddy sums up as “how does the brain work?” strongly appealed to him. Eddy will bring his RNA genomics research to the Farm next July. His own research focus on RNA — “algorithms that can reach into these genome sequences and identify … catalytic genes and cis-regulatory structures,” among others — has been underway for the better part of a decade and he sees it continuing for years to come. Eddy says about half his lab, accompanied by their stochastic context-free grammars and three- and four-dimensional algorithms, will join him on the trip to Janelia Farm. “We’re looking forward to July 2006,” he says.
As is Rubin, who’s keen to see how these elements will fit together in reality. “It is an interesting experiment in how to do science in a different way,” he says.
— Meredith Salisbury