Building Interdisciplinarity

An article in Harvard Magazine (January-February 2007) describes The Janelia Experiment, an new biomedical research facility designed to foster great inter-discplinary research. Fostering interdisciplinary research is topic the Stockholm Resilience Center is grapling with as it organizes itself (but without the problems a $16 billion endowment brings).

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.

Such places did exist in the past. Both Bell Labs and the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB) in Cambridge, England, took a long-term approach to problem-solving, one in the physical sciences, the other in biology. Both produced results that were “offscale,” Rubin says, “even compared to the best private institutions.” Both were used as models for Janelia Farm.

Common to Bell Labs and the LMB were small research groups, leaders who were active bench scientists, internal funding for research, outstanding shared support and infrastructure, limited tenure, and a culture that rewarded collegiality and cooperation.

Sociological research, Rubin says, has shown that humans don’t have meaningful interactions with more than about 20 people. “If you want to have interactions between groups and every group is 20 people, well, it’s just not going to happen,” says Rubin. “It’s fundamental human nature.” Thus groups at Janelia Farm, with its goal of increasing interdisciplinary cooperation between labs, are limited to no more than six members.

Yet even if the opportunities to create an organizational structure that promotes interdisciplinary collaboration are somewhat limited within the university environment, there is no such limitation on design and architecture that promotes collaboration. In this sense, Janelia Farm is also a model that blends lessons of the past with the most contemporary thinking in lab design. There are spaces that promote interaction: a cafeteria with good, inexpensive food, and a pub that serves coffee and tea during the day and cheeseburgers and beer after work. Forcing people out of their normal environments is a good thing, says Rubin. The LMB had a canteen and the culture there, he says, was that you were free to sit down with people you didn’t know. (A 2004 study by the National Academy of Sciences asked research administrators what they would cut last in a hypothetical budget crunch. They overwhelmingly named their cafeteria.)

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