Marine Biological Lab Joins Forces With University of Chicago

Firmer footing. A partnership with the University of Chicago aims to improve the finances of the Marine Biological Laboratory (above).

Marine Biological Laboratory

The University of Chicago (UC) and the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) today announced an affiliation that will backstop the lab's ailing balance sheet. The agreement makes the university ultimately responsible for the budget of MBL, the oldest private marine laboratory in the United States.

Under the agreement, the Woods Hole, Massachusetts-based lab will remain an independent nonprofit and the University of Chicago will become the sole member of its corporation on 1 July. All MBL staff members will remain employees of the laboratory.

The move comes after several years of falling revenues at MBL. According to tax documents, the private lab saw an 18% drop in income between 2008 and 2011. In 2011, the organization posted revenues of $47.5 million—and a shortfall of $798,000. The lab's current budget is $41 million.

"We have historically struggled with operating cash shortfalls," Joan Ruderman, MBL's president and director, tells ScienceInsider.

Although the lab has done well in winning federal grant money over the last few years, the organization does not receive tuition funding and its alumni scientists haven't been big contributors. Meanwhile, the expenses of running the 300-employee lab have continued to rise.

"It's not a sustainable business model anymore," Ruderman says.

The new arrangement brings the two storied institutions closer and will create new research opportunities, says UC paleontologist Neil Shubin, who will become senior adviser to the university's president and help oversee the academic coordination of the two organizations.

And MBL has something that the midwestern school doesn't—access to the ocean. "We are a freshwater university, not a saltwater one," Shubin says.

New collaborative programs are planned, including a competitive grant to honor MBL's 125th anniversary, which occurs this year. Scientists at both organizations also see opportunities for collaboration in areas such as neuroscience, evolutionary and developmental biology, cell biology, and ecosystems science.

Both Ruderman and Shubin see a big opportunity in expanding the lab's off-season programs. Traditionally, MBL is busiest during the summer, when more than 1700 researchers flock to Woods Hole. "Our major teaching building stands pretty much empty during the academic year," Ruderman says.

She expects that the university will send many more students during the off-season to study advanced marine biology. The bottom line: It will "help our year-round scientists keep going."

MBL's Ruderman also looks forward to a stronger presence in Washington to jump-start the grant process. "It's very exciting. UC has a D.C. office for federal relations and can help make introductions."