The Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology
The Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology (MRC LMB) in Cambridge, England, was founded in 1947 and was the world’s leading molecular biology research center for a 30-year period between 1950 and 1980.
Although the laboratory never had more than a total of 250 scientists and support staff, or more than 30,000 sq. ft. of laboratory space, its scientists were awarded the Nobel Prize on eight separate occasions for discoveries made during this 30-year period that included determining the structure of DNA, determining the three-dimensional structure of a protein using X-ray crystallography, developing methods for sequencing DNA, the development of monoclonal antibodies, and the establishment of C. elegans as a model system, in particular its use in studying cell death.
MRC LMB was also a major international center for training; four current HHMI investigators obtained their PhD degrees at the laboratory and 12 did postdoctoral work there—a far higher number than at any other foreign institution.
AT&T’s Bell Laboratories (now known as Lucent Technologies’ Bell Labs), founded in the 1920s, is widely regarded as having been the most successful industrial research laboratory to date; many important advances in solid state physics and electronics were made there, including development of the transistor and the laser.
The European Molecular Biology Laboratory
The European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) is generally considered one of the best research laboratories in Europe, and it arguably runs the most competitive graduate program in the fields of molecular and cell biology and computational biology in Europe.
At the EMBL, group leaders have an initial 5-year term, which is almost always renewed for a terminal 4-year term, but there is no tenure. About 15 percent of the group leaders are given “indefinite” appointments that can be terminated by the director with 4 years’ notice. These appointments are given only to individuals who take on administrative duties (for example, program coordinator or head of graduate program).
It is believed that requiring nearly all group leaders to turn over after the same term length, regardless of the perception of their scientific merit, reduces internal competition and increases cooperation between groups.
Group leaders generally receive funding for four or five technicians or postdoctoral associates. They are also allowed to add one new PhD student per year, and almost all do. They can accept externally funded postdoctoral fellows and apply for external grants, although their opportunities are limited since they are often ineligible for host country grant programs. They can have as many people in their group as they are willing to fit into their space.
Average group size for mature groups is about 10. There is also a “team leader” position, a 3-year appointment used mainly as a way of extending time for productive postdoctoral fellows. There is a range of opinions among those at the EMBL about the wisdom of allowing outside funding.
Carnegie Science, Department of Embryology
Originally named the Carnegie Institution of Washington, this research laboratory was founded in 1913 in affiliation with the Anatomy department of Johns Hopkins University and is located on its Homewood campus. Now known as Carnegie Science, its scientists employ molecular and genetic approaches to study basic problems in cell and developmental biology.
Carnegie is notable as a first-class U.S. research institute that does not grant tenure. Staff members have 5-year appointments that are renewable at the discretion of the director. Group size – whether for a newly appointed group leader or the director – is limited to eight additional researchers. Staff members all hold adjunct faculty appointments at Johns Hopkins.
At Carnegie, there is excellent support for research infrastructure, and all large equipment is shared. The department holds weekly research colloquia in which its scientists present their work internally. The result is a highly interactive and unusually collegial environment. One-half of the funding comes from outside sources (HHMI and federal grants).
Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory
Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) is a research and educational institution with research programs focusing on cancer, neuroscience, plant biology, quantitative biology, genomics, and bioinformatics. It has a broad educational mission, including a doctoral program at the Watson School of Biological Sciences on the CSHL campus on Long Island in New York.
CSHL does not offer tenure but allows the most successful scientists to be promoted to a full professor position. These professors are given rolling 5-year appointments – that is, they can be given a 5-year terminal appointment at any time at the discretion of the director. Group size varies from two to 20. About 80 percent of funding comes from external sources.
In addition to providing an example of a physically isolated, freestanding research institution that has been scientifically successful without granting tenure, CSHL provides a useful role model of vibrant intellectual life and provides a service to the scientific community by means of an extensive program of scientific conferences and training courses. Its Meetings & Courses program brings about 12,000 visitors to campus each year.