Down and out

Similar to most scientists (and almost everybody I know) I’m deeply concerned by the result of the UK’s referendum on EU membership. It’s difficult to see the outcome as anything but a huge step backward, damaging to the country’s future and to science. I expect the next few months will be the equivalent of watching a slow-motion car crash, the extent of the damage gradually being revealed.

Academics and life scientists in particular were almost unanimous in their support for Remain. I saw several polls of scientists and university staff that put support forEUUN0001 remaining in the EU at ~90% (what the other 10% were thinking I have no idea). There are obvious, self-serving reasons why most UK scientists are in favour of the EU. The Royal Society published figures showing that while the UK contributed €5.4bn to the EU science budget between 2007-2013, researchers in the UK had been awarded grants and funding of €8.8bn in the same period. Many of us know the UK is disproportionately successful at winning EU funding. We are skeptical whether the ~£3bn or more of EU funding that will be lost from the UK over the next 5 years will be replaced by our national government. Moreover, UK scientists often take leadership roles in multinational European collaborations. Leaving the EU will jeopardise the authority and influence that these roles offer and result in UK science being increasingly sidelined. I’ve already heard stories of UK scientists being asked to step down from applications for European funding because of the uncertain status of the UK over the next few years.

However I think there is a much deeper and more fundamental reason why most scientists are pro-Remain. In addition to the funding, the importance of freedom of movement and the free exchange of ideas is at the heart of science. Seeing the bureaucracy and hassle that some non-EU members of my lab have to go through to travel to another European country would have been enough of an incentive alone for me to vote for the EU. But for most researchers the freedom of movement is not simple expediency or minimising delays in airports. Science is fundamentally an international endeavour that transcends national boundaries. The sharing of ideas, people and material is an essential part of research. It enhances both senders and recipients. Anything that prevents or even just discourages exchanges is detrimental to science and the country. The perception that the UK is now less welcoming, less open, less enlightened makes me feel bleak.

This idea is not new but has been the case for centuries. In the run up to the referendum vote I was reading Andrea Wulf’s biography of Alexander von Humboldt The book is an engaging description of the life and influence of the Nineteenth century polymath. Wulf discusses how he made fundamental contributions to our understanding of our natural and physical environment, inspiring later generations including Charles Darwin and John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club. Many aspects of Humboldt’s career would be familiar to scientists working in Europe today. Wulf describes that, despite living through the turmoil of the Napoleonic wars, he was closely connected with other scientists across Europe. Born near Berlin, he spent a considerable time living and working in Paris and had extended stays in several other cities, including London; a CV is similar to many of today’s researchers. He also corresponded extensively with other scientists, answering up to 5000 letters a year – a century and a half before email. It was these interactions and collaborations that gave Humboldt’s major work ‘Kosmos’ its breadth and reach and his global outlook was also responsible for Humboldt’s influence on future generations.

Although no one is likely to have the impact or importance of Humboldt again, one of the great pleasures of being a European researcher today is how the diversity of people in our labs and in our fields enrich both our intellectual and cultural life. It is essential that UK remains an open and attractive destination for scientists from Europe and the rest of the world. I strongly believe that the EU was important for this and I worry about the consequences now. It’s crucial that international researchers are allowed to visit and work in the UK and that we still have access to EU funding and European collaborations. I’m sure the Crick, like all international research institutes, will do its best to remain open and welcoming to scientists wherever they come from. But a chilling consequence of the referendum is the message of disdain and contempt it sends to the rest of the world. Countering this is as important as whatever new criteria for visas and funding eligibility are put in place. One of the benefits of our move to the Crick is that it’s located right across the road from the Eurostar terminus at St Pancras. Now Paris, Brussels and stations beyond, are just a couple of hours away from the Crick. So rather than the 5 day journey, by coach, horses and boat that Humboldt took to get from Paris to London we now just hop on a train. I hope this proximity helps to reduce any perceived increased distance. It will certainly be up to us to make the extra effort that will now be necessary to keep the UK open for science. We might be facing a future of borders and visas but, unlike Humboldt, at least we won’t have Napoleon’s armies to contend with on our travels.

By Design

I’ve worked in labs my whole career but I’d never thought much about their design or the way in which architecture can affect how research is done. This changed during the planning and building of the Crick.

In 2008, right at the start of the design process for the new building, I was asked to be part of the lab design committee. In addition to me, the committee included several other group leaders from the founding institutes (NIMR at Mill Hill and the London Research Institute of CRUK) as well as architects, engineers and project managers. Our role was to assist and advise on the plans for the main lab floors of the institute. Similar committees were set up to help design other parts of the building: the animal facilities, public spaces etc.


One of the first things we did as a committee was to go on a week long tour of new research centres in the US. We visited buildings in Stanford. UCSF, Berkeley and Washington DC and at each we got guided tours, talked to facility managers, institute directors and working scientists. Seeing how our architects and engineers looked at these buildings and hearing the questions they asked gave me a new perspective on how architecture can influence the culture and operation of research institute. I realised it’s not just obvious practical aspects of a building (whether the A/C works, is there sufficient space for microscopes, cold rooms etc) but more subtle things that are important when it comes to ‘good’ and ‘bad’ research buildings. It makes a difference whether student and post-doc desks are at the end of their benches or grouped together in a separate area. Are group-leader offices within their lab space or clustered with those of other group leaders? Is there visibility into labs from the corridors? Where do people congregate to have coffee, lunch and chat? I also became familiar with a lot of construction terminology: MEP means Mechanical, Electrical and Plant (something you definitely need to get right); the vibration of a building is measured in a combination of metric (microns) and imperial (inches per second) and you don’t want it, especially near super-resolution microscopes.

I learned a great deal from the discussions we had that week and from how different groups of people think about a building. Now, whenever I visit a lab building, I walk around it with a more discerning eye. The trip also made me appreciate aspects of doing research that I hadn’t noticed before. I realised how different the culture of a research institute is from the large commercial corporations that normally commission multimillion pound buildings. Individual labs within an institute, although relying on common facilities and benefiting from interactions with other labs, are semi-autonomous. My lab could move to a different institute and we’d continue with our work and the old institute would keep functioning unperturbed. The best analogy I could think of to describe this relationship is comparing a research institute to a market: all the stalls in a market benefit from being in the market but no one stall is necessary and individual stall holders could be supportive or competitive with one another. From the perspective of the design of research buildings this places a lot of importance on promoting communication and personal interactions. There need to be social spaces where people will naturally mix, it should be easy to see and walk to any other lab in the building, the design should encourage a neighbourhood feeling amongst adjacent labs. At the same time, the idea that individual labs are self-determining and semi-independent needs to be maintained.

I also realised on the trip how changes in biomedical science get reflected in building design. The increasing importance of other disciplines, particularly computational and ‘dry’ labs, means that there is more demand for office space within research buildings and these need to be as well connected as possible with the ‘wet’ labs. It’s also the case that researchers doing ‘wet’ lab work are spending substantially less time in primary lab space and more time in specialised areas (microscope rooms, tissue culture, cold rooms). For the Crick Institute, as for most biomedical research buildings, the primary lab space is the central feature of the lab floors – around this specialised rooms and dry spaces are organised. But more than half the lab floor space is taken up with these ‘secondary’ spaces, indicating how important they are. Seeing these changes in the buildings we visited made me wonder how long the practice of making primary lab space the main focus of the design will last. If or when this changes, it will radically alter laboratory layouts. It will be interesting to see how this evolves.

After we returned from our fact finding trip the committee spent the next couple of years meeting every fortnight to discuss and critique the plans the architects were drawing up. During this process I learned more construction terminology, including the dread phrase “value engineering”, the translation of which is “cost cutting”. As with any building there had to be compromises, but even though we didn’t get everything we wanted, I hope we got the important things right. Very soon we will know.

And so it begins

This week we – the Francis Crick Institute – officially begin the move into our new building. The contractors are still putting the finishing touches to the building as well as completing systems testing but the installation of electron microscopes and NMR machines is beginning in the basement. Over the next 6 months we’ll be occupying the building, moving in equipment, people and animals, and turning our pristine new building into a biomedical research institute.


I imagine that this will be a unique few months and I don’t want to miss the opportunity of documenting what I expect to be an eventful and exciting time. I want to use the blog to record the move itself, to reflect on how we got to where we are today and to contemplate the future. For me, the start of the move into the building is a major milestone in a story that began back in 2003 with the MRC’s Forward Investment Strategy and subsequently took various twists and turns. I’m sure I’ll return to some of these in future posts. I also expect there will be other subjects and distractions that come up over the next few months that I’ll want to comment on.

The ambitious plans and the opportunities promised by the Crick have stimulated a lot of debate. Whenever I meet colleagues – whether in the UK or abroad – the topic comes up. It has challenged many of us employed by the Crick, as well as many in the scientific community, to think about how research is organized, how academic careers are managed and what directions science will take over the next 10-20 years. Even before the first labs have moved into the building, the idea of the Crick is having a major impact on how we do science and influencing the science we do. I think this is as it should be. Research institutes and academic groups are about people and ideas not buildings or places. Being invited to think in new ways about our research or to justify what we currently do is unsettling but also liberating and invigorating. I’m keen to see how the thoughts and discussions we’ve had over the last few years change and solidify as the concepts become reality in the new building.

On a more practical level, in my lab there is still a sense of unreality about the move. We know it’s going to happen: we’ve made plans, sat through many meetings and been given copious amounts of information, but until we see the first removal vans arriving, it’s difficult to believe that it will happen. The day to day business of doing experiments, reading papers, going to seminars, writing manuscripts is sufficiently consuming that it’s easy to forgot what we’re about to go through. Keeping busy and focusing on the science has minimised anxiety and uncertainty about the move. It’s only occasionally, when there’s time to pause and lookup, do we get a chance to think and reflect. I hope I can jot down some of those moments here.