Say you wanted to improve how biomedical research is done. Perhaps you noticed that the world had changed and researchers could no longer answer the big questions with a Bunsen burner, a Petri dish, and a light microscope: they need a mass spectrometer, a cryogenic electron microscope, DNA sequencing and fluorescent cell sorting machines, and collaborators with expertise, world leaders in these technologies.

Say you felt that the depth of knowledge required to master any one discipline and technology at a world standard meant that the next generation of researchers risked being -as Francis Crick said, “trapped by their own expertise” so they couldn’t find these collaborators.

 Say you were also worried that relying on short three- or five-year grants and fellowships was driving researchers to focus successively on bite sized questions – one after another – rather than pushing forth boldly into new but important domains.

 Finally imagine you had had a stellar career and have nothing to prove but now just want to give back and lay foundations that will support the next generation of researchers.

Around ten years ago a group of top scientists began building the Francis Crick Institute in London. I visited it then and just popped in again to see how it’s going.

As you approach you can already feel it is going well. This area of London is buzzing. In the neighbourhood you’ll see the British Library, the Alan Turing Institute for data science and artificial intelligence, the renovated King’s Cross/St Pancras station that connects to the Channel Tunnel, and the old rail yards are now filling with new biotech or IT companies, and flash restaurants.

Before you enter the Crick, you’ll see science communication exhibitions, asking if you’d edit your DNA or explaining aspects of biomedical research. When you enter, you’ll think you’ve walked into a cathedral. The place is huge.

But the offices aren’t. Even the leaders have modest offices, big enough for one desk and two chairs – just two people. If you want to meet with more there is extensive open space in the atrium between the labs and arrays of chairs – the place is humming with scientists and professional staff. Looking out of the glass front of your office or lab you can immediately see whether your friends are in.

This ticks the first box – the vibrant shared spaces and the visual connections, ensure that scientists meet each other and make multi-disciplinary collaborations.

But note the Crick is not about collaboration for collaboration’s sake. This isn’t a cult of interdisciplinarity where the more unlikely the combination, the more it is celebrated. This is smart collaboration – here structural biologists team up with cell biologists, or bioinformaticians, or medicinal chemists, or specialist clinical scientists. This isn’t about buzzwords. Collaboration is built around what is real and never pushed to absurdity.

What about box number two – how does one help the next generation of researchers confront big rather than little questions?

At the Crick most group leaders are early career researchers ready to break out in new directions. They are supported for 12 – yes 12 – years, though there is a review after six. What’s more, they are also given support to leave and establish themselves elsewhere. Again, this is smart. Many researchers live on fixed term contracts but sadly often it is the least successful who are pushed out and face the wilderness at their weakest moment. Sometimes they have failed but often it is mostly luck, timing and circumstance that conspire periodically to floor even the best researchers.

At the Crick the idea is to make leaving part of the lifecycle. But to support it, so that talent and skills can seed prosperity elsewhere assisted by a Crick dowry. There are echoes here of how the European Molecular Biology Organisation fixed term contracts and those at the famous Salk Institute work, but to my mind the transitional support offered by the Crick is unique and will ensure early career researchers with talent will push on and through the doldrums, rather than going back to easy, incremental problems as they become increasingly desperate to secure a job and grants. A strategy that can backfire.

But how does one support such a huge enterprise, with all these early career group leaders, and cutting edge tech platforms?

The answer again lies in smart alliances, in this case between UK funding agencies and educational institutions. The Crick was founded as a joint venture between three research funders, which provide two-thirds of its research budget – the government-funded Medical Research Council, the mass fundraising research charity Cancer Research UK, and Wellcome – and the three great university colleges in London – Imperial, King’s, and University College London. The stable core funding, and the number of research groups working at the Crick – some 120, alongside smaller research collaborations with the university partners – allows the Crick to support a comprehensive portfolio of facilities and to take a long-term and strategic view of their operation.

 So the Crick can be seen as great strategic collaboration – but what if it didn’t exist?

 Some have suggested that if the Crick had not been established, the same resources would have poured in and been distributed evenly across the whole country. However, this scenario is a fallacy – the Cancer Research UK and MRC money that runs the Crick is not new. It derives from the core support for the MRC National Institute for Medical Research, and the CRUK London Research Institute, which were merged and incorporated into the new institute with its renewed and invigorated research strategy. Without the Crick, these funds would have remained committed, so funding struggles elsewhere would not have been alleviated. Hopefully the knowledge, cures, technology, and culture of bold innovation that the Crick engenders will benefit everyone in the end.

And could we do it in Australia? We already have some excellent precincts. Via the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy we have good shared core facilities. We should be bold. Our population and GDP is nearly half that of Britain. We are being carried upwards by the scientific ambitions and rising wealth of our neighbours in Asia.

 We just have to be smarter about collaborating. To distinguish genuine synergies from catchy nonsense, and to be bold enough to invest in centres and in the leaders of tomorrow for more than three years at a time. If we can lead the world in cricket, perhaps we could also one day eclipse the Crick.

Merlin Crossley is Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic Quality at UNSW Sydney


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