From Harvard Magazine:
The Janelia Experiment:
Great scientific research organizations, of the rare variety that produce multiple Nobel Prize-caliber breakthroughs, share common traits that can be imitated. This is the precept behind the creation of Janelia Farm, the new biological-research campus of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI). In November, scientists from the Harvard Stem Cell Institute visited the new campus, where everything from architecture to organization to social culture has been planned to nurture an optimal environment for scientific discovery. What the visitors saw may offer ideas for Harvard, which is planning an ambitious science-research campus in Allston and working to ensure that the organizational structure of the sciences, as well as the architecture of new buildings, will promote a culture of interdisciplinary collaboration.
In creating Janelia Farm, the planners relied heavily on historical precedent. “Every idea we have here, I can tell you who we stole it from,” says molecular biologist Gerald M. Rubin, the director of the facility, with a laugh. A former Howard Hughes investigator himself, Rubin has been involved since 2000 in planning the new campus (pronounced ja-NEE-lia, it is named for a former estate). HHMI, which has a $16-billion endowment, already provides $470 million a year to more than 300 top scientists at universities and research institutions throughout the country as part of its investigator program. Janelia Farm, with an annual budget of $80 million, was created to fill a perceived gap in the spectrum of research taking place in the United States. As Rubin wrote in the journal Cell, the domestic research portfolio has “shifted too far to the conservative.” Largely missing, he feels, are research organizations equipped to tackle extremely difficult problems in biology that may require long-term interdisciplinary collaborations to solve—perhaps 15 or 20 years, a time horizon far longer than that of any government grant.
Because the primary building material at Janelia Farm is glass, there is a strong sense of connection with nature and its cycles nearly everywhere you go. Group leader Karel Svoboda, Ph.D. ’94, says the building is very functional in key aspects, such as on rainy days when “the light is extraordinary. We don’t always appreciate how much of an effect good light has on us.” Many interior walls are glass as well, creating a transparency that makes it easy to find people. Not everyone would be comfortable in such an environment, Rubin acknowledges, but then he wants to hire people who are comfortable with the collaborative environment that transparent walls seek to promote.