Friday, July 19, 2013

How to Build a Research Institute

The Francis Crick Institute is under construction in London (UK). When I first heard about this I thought that it would be a wonderful place for theoretical biologists—a sort of Institute for Advanced Study for biologists. That would be in keeping with the career of Francis Crick. It's also something that sorely needed in the 21st century because most biology has degenerated into data collection and mining with little attention to ideas and concepts.

Alas, the director, Paul Nurse, had other ideas. He wanted to create "a world-leading centre of biomedical research and innovation." In other words, translation research.

Paul Nurse and two research directors (Richard Treisman and Jim Smith) wrote an editorial in a recent issue of Science [Building Better Institutions]. They take it as a given that what Great Britain needs is a research institute that concentrates on medical research. They also believe that mixing scientists, clinicians, and representatives of the pharmaceutical industry will lead to better results. You better throw in a few physical scientists for good measure because physical scientists have good ideas.
Despite the recent growth in scientific knowledge, conventional discipline-based methods have not been suffi ciently effective at developing new understanding and treatments. Researchers need to be encouraged to identify important questions and tackle them with multidisciplinary approaches. Contemporary biomedical research has to integrate biological, nonbiological, and clinical disciplines, and its application requires interactions with hospital and commercial partners. This can be facilitated by research institutions with an environment that supports strong interdisciplinary interactions between scientists: a place where laboratory biologists are encouraged to collaborate with clinical researchers to understand the medical implications of their work, with pharmaceutical companies for the translation of discoveries into treatments, and with physical scientists to expand their thinking and repertoire of experimental approaches. Such an institution must be continually open to new ideas and permeable to interactions with outside researchers and organizations.
We've been doing exactly that at our hospital research institutes here at the University of Toronto. The industrial relationship has been helped by something we call the MaRS Discovery District. The experiment has been running for over a decade and, as I'm sure you all know, it has been hugely successful. Toronto has been churning out new medical discoveries on a daily basis. (Not!)

The Francis Crick Institute will support young investigators because scientists at the beginning of their career have such a tremendous track record of creativity and originality. (?) In fact, the new institute believes so strongly in young investigator that 80 out of 120 positions will be set aside for them. But what happens when they reach their mid-forties?
These appointments will be of up to 12 years, supported by the Crick's funding partners (the Medical Research Council, Cancer Research UK, and the Wellcome Trust). Group leaders will then leave the institute to establish a research group elsewhere; the aim is to give researchers who are effective and remain in the United Kingdom a transition package to support their moves, creating a thriving network of highly trained researchers.
Science is a risky business so every year there will likely be three or four investigators whose time is up but whose scientific output is just average. What happens when they're tossed out of the institute?

Does anyone think this is a good idea?

1 comment :

  1. They need creationists to move things forward.
    I watch a lot about the early discoveries in science on youtube.
    Its just clear to me that progress came from individuals with insights .
    It can't be organized.
    They did usually move in segregated circles of like minded people but even then it took a few to get everyone to be imaginative.
    I do see it like a ice berg. The top represent the results of the greater bulk of activity.
    So British science of the 1700's was on top of a general rise in the British peoples intelligence. Though the top leaned toward the upper class people.
    I think it all comes down to intelligence.
    Graduating kids can easily get degrees by memorizing stuff.
    One needs smarter kids to get the degrees and then hang around together and ideas will come.
    Things seem slow due to interference with the smarter people/ motivated people getting the admissions to university's.
    People need to do things in their private time when they can't do it 9-5.