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Betting the Farm

View looking east (Credit: ©2006, Paul Fetters for HHMI)

After years of calls by scientific leaders for young scientists to become independent much earlier, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) has put its money--close to half a billion dollars, thus far--where its mouth is. Last month, it opened an innovative research center that will offer unmatched levels of freedom and support to a select group of researchers at the very beginning of their careers.

Janelia Farm Research Campus--683 rolling acres along the Potomac River in Ashburn, Virginia, 30 miles from Washington, D.C.--has all the hallmarks of the HHMI brand: exquisite grounds; striking architecture; a bold, comprehensive vision; topflight facilities and personnel--and world-class scientific ambitions. The scientists who work--and, if they wish, live--at Janelia Farm will, according to director Gerald Rubin, enjoy a peerless intellectual and physical environment that HHMI hopes will spur extraordinary science.

Among the favored researchers will be several dozen just a few years beyond their Ph.D.s. Most will have traditional--although well-paid--postdoc appointments under eminent or soon-to-be-eminent lab chiefs. But others of the same age and career stage will hold a new kind of position providing total scientific independence plus 5 years of guaranteed funding, staff, and lab space in an elegant, state-of-the-art building. They will work unfettered by any responsibility except to follow their ideas wherever they lead.

An unconventional design

No tenure clock will be ticking and no grant deadlines will loom. In fact, Rubin says, Janelia researchers “won’t be allowed” to spend time applying for outside grants because HHMI will pay the entire freight. Nor can they compete for tenure because it doesn’t exist. Janelia, furthermore, lacks the departments, academic ranks, and disciplinary boundaries that define--and constrain--university life. Modeled on such pathbreaking establishments as the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, United Kingdom, and Bell Labs in New Jersey, Janelia consists of small, multidisciplinary groups--approximately 45 of them when staffing reaches full strength in 2009. Many will tackle problems that don’t fit into the regular grant application cycle because they are too experimental or unlikely to produce results soon enough for conventional renewal requirements.

As happened during the glory days of those other famed institutions, Rubin foresees lab chiefs joining postdocs, grad students, and staff scientists at the bench, unhampered by the need to teach, see to administrative tasks, or write proposals. These interactions will occur in glass-walled spaces that--apart from being visually stunning--are designed to encourage frequent casual contact among members of the various groups. Also on hand for varying periods will be up to 100 established visiting scientists on campus to collaborate, visit, or “just hang out,” Rubin says. And grad students will pursue Ph.D.s at Janelia through cooperative programs with the Universities of Chicago and Cambridge, U.K.

Work at Janelia will focus on two areas, “the identification of general principles that govern how information is processed by neuronal circuits, [and] the development of imaging technologies and computational methods for image analysis,” as HHMI puts it on their Web site. When or whether Janelia might add or change focus areas is not clear at present.

Corridor outside laboratories.

Corridor outside laboratories.

Credit: ©2006, Paul Fetters for HHMI

Three kinds of independent researchers will head these labs. Group leaders, mid-career scientists arriving at Janelia Farm already equipped with impressive records of accomplishment, will supervise as up to six additional people--postdocs, grad students, and permanent scientific staff members--and hold initial appointments that will be reviewed and can be renewed after 6 years and then at 5-year intervals. These positions potentially can extend into life-long careers on the campus. After the first renewal, however, the funding also becomes portable should the researcher choose to leave Janelia for a university position in order, for example, to teach or run a larger lab. Janelia is consciously “set up to encourage [but not force] people to leave” and thus to produce openings that will periodically attract new people to campus, Rubin says.

The second category of lab chiefs is fellows. Three to five will be senior fellows, prominent researchers in latter stages of their careers. But 20 will be promising young scientists not far from beyond their Ph.D.s who supervise as many as two other people--also postdocs, grad students or staff scientists--and hold one-time-only, nonrenewable, 5-year appointments. “There should be no expectation” of staying longer, Rubin warns, although fellows reluctant to depart Shangri-La can apply for a group-leader job“ at any time.” Rubin promises that the percentage of those who get a group-leader appointment will be considerably lower than the “more than half” of assistant professors who get tenure at universities.

A fellowship at Janelia is therefore decidedly not for those wanting a shot at long-term job security. It emphatically is, as Rubin puts it, for “venturesome” souls willing to wager that, given the chance, they will do high-stakes, career-making science. “It’s a tradeoff,” he says. “We’re offering real intellectual freedom and we’re looking for people with enough confidence in themselves to say, ‘If someone gives me the resources [and] a nurturing, supportive environment with colleagues who can help and advise me, that’s all I need.’ ” He tells new group leaders, a number of whom have given up tenured positions to come, “You bet your career. We bet ten million dollars.”

Scientists willing to make the wager, he continues, “can do what they want rather than what someone else is telling them to do, [and] can really just concentrate on science. … We really try to [provide] freedom from all the necessities of, as my wife likes to say, living in the real world. We are the proverbial ivory tower.” Of the four or so new fellows hired each year, some will be brand-new Ph.D.s and some will be experienced postdocs “taking these positions instead of a normal assistant professorship because they … want to go in a new direction [or to] keep working in a small group that gives them support … and don’t want to be distracted.” During the crucial-but-fleeting early years widely recognized as a scientist’s “most productive stage, [they] can come here and really do something significant. … Why waste that time [as an assistant professor] sitting on the library committee?”

Janelia Farm auditorium.

Janelia Farm auditorium.

Credit: ©2006, Paul Fetters for HHMI

A problem solver?

The Janelia model, Rubin adds, also offers a solution to another “well-known problem,” that of “women having to make a decision between family and work.” Many women scientists he has spoken with say, after looking at “the life of an assistant professor, ‘You can’t do that and have a family.’ ” Rubin continues, "An assistant professor at a major research university [has an] 80-hour-a-week job, but only 50 hours” go to research. The rest, he says, go to “grants, committee work, teaching.” So Janelia asks, “ ‘Why delay childbirth? Why not delay grants, teaching, [and] committee work?’ ” With “great” childcare right at hand, women can “come here, start a family, and [still] spend as many hours doing research as an assistant professor at Harvard or MIT.” As yet, however, this apparent advantage has not translated into a higher-than-average percentage of female researchers. As at major universities, 20% of applicants, and an equal percentage of the fellows and group leaders thus far chosen--1 of 5 and 2 0f 10, respectively--are women.

Given the extraordinary advantages that Janelia offers, the application process is, not surprisingly, “extremely selective,” says Rubin. But personality counts along with intellectual credentials. “We want people … who are interactive. … We don’t make you teach, we don’t make you do committee work, but if one of your colleagues comes down the hall and says, ‘I have a question in your area of expertise. Will you sit down and spend a couple of hours with me this week so I can pick your brain?’ We expect people to say, ‘Sure, I’d be delighted.’ We expect everyone to help make the community greater than sum of its parts.”

For scientists unwilling or unable to compete at this stratospheric level, Janelia will also offer “career opportunities … doing really exciting science” as staff research specialists. Many such jobs will go to scientists with Ph.D.s who want to “do science every day and don’t care if they don’t have control over the direction--but who want to be in an exciting place where they’re valued and don’t have to worry if the grant is going to be renewed,” Rubin says. In fact, “we have more of a need for that kind of person than your average research center because we’re trying to do long-term research. For some of our projects, we need people who aren’t concerned about getting a publication in 2 years to get a job because we’re trying to do a problem that may be more difficult” and take longer to produce results.

Details about all these positions, along with application forms, are available through the Janelia “Positions” page. Over the next few years, as Janelia “ramps up” to its full complement of 24 group leaders, 20 fellows, and hundreds of postdocs, grad students, and staff members to support them, job opportunities should be plentiful. Whether the venture can live up to its extravagant advance billing remains to be seen. But this much is already clear: It won’t fail for lack of enthusiasm--or of anything else that Hughes’s nearly $15 billion nest egg can buy.

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