Resurrecting the Best of Bell Labs


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Editor's Note: This is a revised version of a story posted here previously.

For Eric Betzig, Bell Labs in the early 1990s was "close to scientific heaven." At Ma Bell's huge research arm, Betzig had freedom, vast resources, and "hundreds of really smart guys down the hall" as he built powerful microscopes. Unfettered by the need to get grants, the scientists pushed back the frontiers of knowledge while striving to solve urgent, practical problems. Their efforts spawned the transistor and the laser, communications satellites and computer operating systems, and numerous other technologies that helped make the U.S. the epicenter of global innovation.

The good times didn't last. The breakup of AT&T and the loss of the monopoly profits that supported research started a slow atrophy that has taken the lab down to half its former size, leaving a void in U.S. research and development enterprise. Ever since, "people have been groping toward ways to fill the hole," says tech maven Thomas Kalil at the University of California at Berkeley.

Now comes the most ambitious and costly attempt to date—and a test of current best ideas of how to manage innovation. Drawing on its $16 billion endowment, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) has built a $500 million monument to the pursuit of basic science on the banks of the Potomac in Northern Virginia. Dubbed Janelia Farm Research Campus, it is explicitly designed to emulate the best of Bell Labs, drawing together some 250 permanent researchers and up to 100 visiting scientists with backgrounds in physics, chemistry, biology, and computer science.

THINKING SMALL, BIG. These men and women won't have to compete for grants or perform administrative tasks. For Betzig, who left Bell Labs in 1994 and spent the next decade running a machine tool business and pondering ideas in a Michigan lakeside cabin, Janelia Farm has resurrected a dream.

He aims to build the world's most powerful microscopes, able to see individual proteins at work inside living cells. When HHMI approached him, he jumped at the chance. "I went from being unemployed to having the best job in the world," says Betzig, who moved into his new lab on Sept. 5.

Janelia Farm director Gerald R. Rubin studied the great research labs of the past, such as Bell Labs and the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England, where James Watson and Francis Crick discovered the structure of DNA. One lesson he took away is that innovation requires tackling big practical problems. "Pure ivory-tower institutions, where people are paid to just sit around and think, tend to be sterile and not very successful," explains David J. Bishop, vice-president at Bell Labs, who advised Rubin and HHMI.

BEYOND BARRIERS. Janelia Farm's goal is understanding the biological structures and function of the brain, and ultimately, consciousness itself. "In 10 to 20 years, we might understand the basic mechanisms of how a fruit fly lands on a wall," explains Rubin. Figure that out and science will be on track to understand human consciousness in perhaps 100 years, he says.

"They've identified a wonderful problem to work on," says molecular biologist Robert Tjian of the University of California at Berkeley. Solving it requires not just neurobiologists, but also chemists to devise new ways of tagging proteins so they can be tracked, physicists to develop methods to see the inner workings of cells, engineers to measure electrical changes in neurons, and mathematicians and computer scientists to make sense of the flood of images. Such collaborative efforts typically are hard for universities, which are divided into departments that find it difficult to interact.

Rubin is now more than one-third of the way to recruiting Janelia Farm's researchers. They tend to be "misfits," he says, who aren't happy in a university where they must write grant proposals, teach classes, and come up with short-term results, or even in industry, where they have to develop actual products.

NO EASY TASK. One example: Eugene Myers, who devised the computer algorithms that made it possible to read the human genetic code. After working at the biotech startup that sequenced the genome, Celera Genomics, Myers earned a top tenured university post, but found himself missing the excitement of working on a team with a grand goal.

Managing this group of smart, idiosyncratic, and driven individuals, and getting them to work together will be "an experiment in social engineering," Rubin admits.

Everything about Janelia Farm is calculated to serve this mission—not least the center's architecture. The labs are lined up behind long walls of solid glass so that scientists can see what their colleagues are up to. In addition, studies have shown that the best way to get researchers to talk to each other is simply by offering food and a place to sit down and share it. So the building houses a 250-seat cafeteria and a pub that has a whiteboard for scribbling down ideas.

"A SCIENTIFIC COMMUNE." A few feet away from the main building are townhouse apartments and a 96-room guest house. The main building has a childcare facility, a gym, Ping-Pong and pool tables, and Saturday morning cartoons for the children. "It reminds me why people used to run off and join communes," says Rubin. "This is like a scientific commune."

The test, however, is whether the group actually advances the frontiers of science. That takes the right incentives, and ways to measure the results. The usual university yardstick—a stream of technical papers—doesn't work in a lab dedicated to long-term collaborative research. So Rubin's plan is to evaluate the scientists every six years on how much they've contributed to the collective goals. If their productivity falters, they'll be out of a job.

The lesson from decades of accomplishments at Bell Labs, which Rubin has taken to heart, is that success comes from an "absolute commitment to excellence," says Bishop. "At Bell Labs, we are here only until they find someone smarter. It keeps us on our toes."

CONVINCING START. Will great things come out of the lab? When Rubin and HHMI President (and Nobel laureate) Thomas R. Cech hatched the idea six years ago, they faced a chorus of skeptics. "Some think that what we are doing is insane," Rubin admits. Would top scientists leave great jobs to take up residence in Northern Virginia, 30 miles from the restaurants and cultural offerings of Washington? Could all these disciplines actually work together? Was the whole effort too big or too small?

"They are taking a huge administrative gamble," says biochemist Roger Y. Tsien of the University of California at San Diego. "I am sure there will be considerable contributions, but whether they are commensurate with the size of the gamble will be hard to judge."

Rubin, however, won over most of the naysayers with a shrewd strategy: He enlisted their help to shape the research agenda of Janelia Farm and recruit its scientists. "Without flattering Gerry too much, he really handled this brilliantly," says Columbia University neurobiologist and Nobel laureate Dr. Eric R. Kandel. "He got us all involved. I was quite a skeptic; now I'm enthusiastic."

But perhaps not as much as Eric Betzig, whose mind is already racing with new challenges. He has been brainstorming with fellow Janelia recruit Rex Kerr about new equipment for observing and studying what nerves are active in the roundworm, C. elegans, in real time. "It's a very technically challenging problem," he says. "And if I'm making new gizmos, for myself or for a problem someone has, I'm happy."

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