THE MRC LABORATORY OF MOLECULAR BIOLOGY IN CAMBRIDGE – SUCCESS COMES FROM FREEDOM OF RESEARCH AND NON-ADMINISTRATION

ON OCTOBER 3, 2018, THE STOCKHOLM NOBEL COMMITTEE ANNOUNCED THE 2018 NOBEL PRIZE IN CHEMISTRY, NAMED SIR GREG WINTER, A BRITISH BIOMEDICAL SCIENTIST (SHARED WITH TWO OTHER AMERICAN SCIENTISTS), FORMER DEPUTY DIRECTOR OF THE CAMBRIDGE MOLECULAR BIOLOGY LABORATORY (MRC-LMB). A YEAR EARLIER, ANOTHER MEMBER OF THE UNIT, RICHARD HENDERSON, HAD ALSO BEEN AWARDED THE NOBEL PRIZE IN CHEMISTRY FOR HIS CONTRIBUTIONS TO CRYO-ELECTRONIC MICROS GOGGS. IT IS RARE FOR A TWO-YEAR LABORATORY TO RECEIVE THE PRESTIGIOUS NOBEL PRIZE (11 PREVIOUS NOBEL PRIZES WERE AWARDED FOR RESEARCH FROM THIS UNIT) AS AN OUTSTANDING ACHIEVEMENT IS RARE FOR ANY RESEARCH CENTER IN THE WORLD TO ACHIEVE. MRC-LMB’S ACHIEVEMENTS ARE A TESTAMENT TO THE SUCCESS IN SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH THAT COMES FROM FREEDOM OF RESEARCH AND SIMPLIFYING ADMINISTRATIVE MANAGEMENT STRUCTURES, WHICH CAN BE A USEFUL LESSON FOR MANY COUNTRIES THAT WANT TO INVEST HEAVILY IN SCIENCE.

HISTORY OF DEVELOPMENT AND RESOUNDING SUCCESSES

(MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology  is a research centre located south of Cambridge, United Kingdom, home to the renowned University of Cambridge. The research centre receives direct funding from the UK Government’s Medical Research Council, and as such has the acronym MRC. Compared to the history of extensive scientific research in England, MRC-LBM is quite “young” with 56 years of age, but the achievements of MRC-LBM is not inferior to any unit with a long history.

The official year LBM was founded was 1962, 56 years ago, but LBM began to be founded in 1947 by 2017 by 20 scientists at Cambridge University’s prestigious Cavendish Laboratory. In 1947, the British Medical Research Council (MRC) decided to fund scientists Max Perutz and John Kendrew in Cavendish to establish a unit to study the structure of proteins based on X-ray crystals. This unit is located at Cavendish Laboratory named “Unit for Research on the Molecular Structure of Biological Systems” and it quickly developed and became the birth place for molecular biology with studies of molecular biology, including DNA structure, viral structure,.. The double helix structure of DNA was built in 1953 at this laboratory, and the unit was renamed “MRC Unit for Molecular Biology”. Frederick Sanger was the first scientist on this team to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1958 for protein and insulin structure. Sanger’s Nobel Prize was a major boost for biosynmedical researchers in the UK and MRC quickly realized the enormous potential for application in medicine of the research at the unit and decided to invest and develop the unit into a key laboratory. In May 1962, MRC-LMB was established as an independent laboratory based on the previous unit. Max Perutz was the first president of the laboratory, consisting of three main departments: structural research headed by John Kendrew, molecular genetics headed by Francis Crick and protein chemistry headed by Frederick Sanger. And that same year, LMB’s research was honored with a Nobel Prize in Medicine awarded to Francis Crick and Jim Watson (for studies in DNA structure) and the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for John Kendrew and Max Perutz (for his work on haemoglobin & myoglobin structure) – a master who launched unprecedented success in the history and reputation of mrc-LMB officially established.

To date, 12 LMB scientific works have been awarded the Nobel Prize in Science, with 15 LMB researchers receiving the Nobel Prize, along with 11 other scientists who have worked or started researching at LMB to receive the Nobel Prize. This means that LMB, a laboratory with 400 scientists (including 130 postdoc and 90 phD students) has contributed to the world to 16 Nobel Laureates, mainly in the field of biomedical and chemical, and is known as the “Nobel Prize Factory”. Many scientific achievements made from LMB are considered world-changing, such as Crick’s DNA structure, which sequences sanger DNA, John Gurdon’s universal stem cell, decoding John Sulston’s human genome,.. And most recently, studies at LMB have been awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry twice consecutively (2017, 2018). Not only has MRC LMB been a successful biomedical technology transfer centre, generating more than £700m in revenue from technology transfer contracts and spin-off companies (e.g. Domantis, Cambridge Antibody Technology, Ribotargets, Protein Design Labs, Celltech, Biogen).

LESSONS FROM MRC LMB’S SUCCESS

LMB receives direct funding from the MRC council on a budget for each five years (funding figures for 2012-2017 are £170 million) and structures according to each research group (currently LMB has more than 50 research groups). LMB attracts young researchers with the MRC’s Programme Leader-Track (PLT) scheme. The program pays LMB researchers (starting salary is currently £51,608 – £61,942) under an initial tenure-track of six years, and at any point during tenure-track, researchers can be transferred to permanent payroll when assessed for full capacity. There have been many young researchers who were unable to get staffing at LMB after the tenure track but were largely successful and continued their studies. Rapid recruitment and efficient finance allow LMB to attract potential young scientists with new research ideas, even scientists who have only just graduated from a phD student. One case hailed by director Hugh Pelham as a testament to attracting young people was Dr Jason Chin, who joined LMB in 2003 only a few months after working in the US, and completely convinced LMB employers after the presentation. Jason Chin quickly became an outstanding scientist of LMB and received the European Award for Outstanding Research. Venki Ramakrishnan, a 2009 LMB Scientist who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, recalled the recruitment experience at LMB that “We are not so concerned about whether candidates have high impact-factor articles, but we have our own standards that are less critical of scientific publication, but one of the key factors is whether candidates dare to pursue long-term goals, new scientific challenges”. Ramakrishnan stated that “we listen to their presentations, bring them to our agency to discuss ideas, research goals to feel that they are good candidates or not”.

Venki Ramakrishnan during a tea break with her students (photo taken by reporter Vivienne Raper in 2011.

As a British laboratory, LMB is a highly internationalized environment with many different countries on all continents, and the number of “domestic” scientists accounts for less than a third. The total number of current LMB staff is 650 including more than 400 researchers and more than 180 research support staff (technicians, administrative staff). LMB’s world-renowned machine has an extremely streamlined tradition with a minimalist administrative structure. The current management structure has only the Board of Directors, down to the team leader. For nearly 20 years, LMB did not even have an official director and only a single administrative staff Audrey Martin (accompanied by a dog daily). Max Perutz, who served as LMB chairman from 1962-1979 (not director) summed up his experiences at LMB with a very squeezed sentence “No politics, no committees, no referees, just talented highly motivated people.” When studying LMB’s successful experience, scientists at Chung-Hsing National University (Taiwan) concluded that “They have set aside bureaucracy to study progress”.

Research at LMB is fundamental and very in-depth research. The usual logic that many people often think that basic studies can be potential for Nobel Prizes but does not bring much economic profit to the application, LMB proves this is not entirely accurate. In addition to MRC’s direct investment, LMB generates hundreds of millions of pounds in profits from the technologies it generates from research through technology transfer contracts and spin-out companies. One point LMB leaders have always prided themselves on is that LMB is the land of pioneering, completely new research ideas that have never been done anywhere else in the world, and this is achieved thanks to the working culture at LMB as “tea-break triumphs”. LMB’s tea and coffee breaks are fun relaxing times that create connections between LMB members, and it’s also a time when every idea can be discussed and dissected. An equal atmosphere is created between LMB members and there is no difference between leadership and staff, or students and instructors in arguments at LMB. LMB encourages discussion and connections among members, a student is encouraged to discuss his or her issue not only with his instructor, but also with any other experienced researcher to seek advice, seeking ways to solve the problem.

Researchers at LMB are encouraged to pursue major research problems, entirely new ideas instead of narrowing in creating targeted scientific articles. And LMB is one of the few laboratories in the UK where the pressure of scientific publication is considered not high. “LMB has a tradition of trying to recruit talented people and leave them free to work” said Leo James, head of research in protein chemistry and Nucleic Acid. Of course, to achieve this, a significant portion comes from the abundant funding that MRC provides to LMB every five years (e.g. £170 million from 2012-2017), and this funding will be funded to groups (in addition to external projects) through projects and funding is carried out quickly far more than the time of applying for external projects. Of course this subsided model is also warned of risks once scientists lose the motivation for new discoveries.

REPLACE THE ENDING

The success of the Cambridge Molecular Biology Laboratory in more than 50 developments in both basic and applied research is a good example to many countries to study (the LMB model has been re-published both in the US). This success is not only in a few times but it is created continuously throughout the development of the unit. That success is judged to come from a non-administrative, non-political, research-free and open working environment.

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