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Europe’s superlab: Sir Paul’s cathedral

When the Francis Crick Institute opens in London this year, it will be Europe’s largest biomedical research centre. Can director Paul Nurse make this gamble pay off for UK science?

Credit: Photo illustration. Sky: Peter Gudella/Shutterstock; Crick: Annthea Lewis/<i>Nature</i>

Fifteen years ago, Paul Nurse had what he now calls “a really stupid idea”. The Nobel-prizewinning geneticist proposed bringing two of London's most esteemed biomedical-research centres under one big tent. Literally. He suggested building a megalab inside the Millennium Dome, a 1-kilometre-round, 52-metre-high open-plan exhibition centre with a plastic and fibreglass roof on the Greenwich Peninsula in southeast London. “It was crazy, because it was not built as a research institute,” says Nurse. “It got nowhere.”

Actually, Nurse's idea did go somewhere: about 10 kilometres northwest, right in the heart of London. In November, he will open the doors to the Francis Crick Institute, a lab even more ambitious than he originally conceived. When the £700-million (US$1.1-billion), 93,000-square-metre institute reaches full capacity by 2021, it will house some 1,600 scientists and support staff, making it Europe's single largest biomedical lab.

Vast expectations come with that size. Nurse and the UK government have advertised the Crick as a boon to British science — one that will generate groundbreaking discoveries, lure the world's most brilliant young researchers to the United Kingdom and boost the British life-sciences industry. And it will do so while eschewing departments, permanent positions and any sort of scientific focus. “It is quite a different sort of beast,” says Nurse. “I sometimes think not everybody realizes what's been put together here.”

If it works, this eccentric experiment in scientific infrastructure could guide how other countries form their labs of the future. But some question whether the Crick will have been worth the risk. They warn that the centre could become a black hole that devours public and private research funding, while widening the gap between the haves and have-nots of UK science. “It is a big, big, big, enormous whale of an investment,” says James Wilsdon, a science-policy researcher at the University of Sussex in Brighton, UK. “It has to succeed. If it doesn't, what do we do?”

Big ambitions

The Crick was born of necessity. By the late 1990s, two of the United Kingdom's most esteemed biomedical-research institutions needed to find new homes. The pre-Second World War building that housed the National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR), in Mill Hill, north London, was showing its age. So were some lab facilities supported by the Imperial Cancer Research Fund, a charity later renamed Cancer Research UK (CRUK). Nurse was head of that charity when he proposed the Millennium Dome megalab. But rather than pursue that dream, he left England in 2003 to lead the Rockefeller University in New York City.

Nurse's crazy idea lingered nonetheless. An influential 2006 government review, the Cooksey report, concluded that the country was “at risk of failing to reap the full economic, health and social benefits that the UK's public investment in health research should generate”, and called for increased collaboration between funders and greater innovation in biomedical research. So when then-NIMR head Keith Peters revived Nurse's idea of merging the two institutions, it gained traction. Peters settled on a plot of land just north of central London, between the British Library and St Pancras railway station. To pay for the new centre, he brought in nearby University College London and the Wellcome Trust biomedical charity; these were later joined by King's College London and Imperial College London, which contributed £40 million each to construction costs. The universities will also house researchers at the Crick, especially physical scientists and engineers, and give the institute access to their associated hospitals.

Paul Nurse inside the Francis Crick Institute. Credit: Rebecca Reid/Eyevine

The Crick, which is named after the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, is billed as a basic-research institute. However, its funders are eager to see its discoveries turn into treatments. Researchers studying everything from stem-cell development to influenza will have access to drug-screening robots, high-powered microscopes and up to 200,000 animals, mostly mice and zebrafish.

The institute will evolve in its early years. The 90 or so group leaders currently at the NIMR and CRUK's London Research Institute (LRI) will be its first occupants when they start moving in early next year. The rest of the roughly 120 group-leader slots will go to young researchers recruited to work at the Crick for a maximum of 12 years — a 6-year initial stint and a 6-year extension, subject to a positive review. Researchers from the NIMR and the LRI who already have permanent posts will keep them, but as they retire, the proportion of tenured group leaders will shrink to around one-third of group leaders. The regular staff turnover, says Nurse, will free the Crick to follow the latest research trends, be they stem cells or genome editing. “A constantly rejuvenating institute stops things from becoming too inward-looking and ossified.”

Lab as experiment

“Gentle anarchy” is how Nurse has described his vision for the Crick. Researchers there will not belong to departments or divisions, and their location in the super-lab will depend on the core facilities they tend to use, from drug-screening robots to cell sorters. In Nurse's vision, researchers will form grass-roots interest groups on topics such as the microbiome. “Most people think it's crazy — you have no sorts of structures,” says Nurse. “I think that it's very exciting and invigorating because the structure comes bottom up.”

Tom Cech, a Nobel-prizewinning biochemist at the University of Colorado Boulder and former president of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) in Chevy Chase, Maryland, says that science funders in other nations will watch the Crick closely. He has some experience with unusual ventures. During Cech's tenure, the HHMI opened the Janelia Farm Research Campus, a neuroscience institute near Ashburn, Virginia, that kept group sizes small, jettisoned tenure and emphasized interdisciplinary research. “If nobody does these experiments, the question remains hypothetical. Experiments like Janelia Farm, like the Crick, are important for society,” says Cech, because they can inspire new ways of doing science.

Most people think it's crazy — you have no sorts of structures. I think that it's very exciting.

The Crick's supporters are also counting on the institute to be an economic engine for Britain by bridging the gap between the lab and market. Nurse's number two, chief operating officer David Roblin, was head of European research and development at pharmaceutical giant Pfizer until 2011, and has since worked for smaller biotechnology companies. “Although I'm an industrial scientist, my instructions are not to make it a pharmaceutical company,” Roblin says. “The Crick is a discovery research institute that is very interested in translation.” Roblin is trying to lure pharmaceutical companies to place researchers at the Crick in the hope of speeding the transition to the clinic. But unlike at a private company, any developments would be openly reported. And the intellectual property would belong to the Crick.

Even in a city filled with glass and steel megastructures, the Francis Crick Institute is an imposing landmark. Nurse, who was knighted in 1999, says that his employees sometimes call it “Sir Paul's cathedral”.

Perched on the edge of the city's revitalized King's Cross area, the building dwarfs the neighbouring British Library — the biggest public structure erected in Britain in the twentieth century. The Crick's twin, curved roofs give the appearance of an overturned ship, its hull split in two.

The institute feels even larger inside, where hard hats, safety glasses and steel-toed boots were still mandatory as of May. Hallways of glass-fronted open-plan labs stretch almost the length of two football fields on either side of an expansive atrium, over several lofty floors. To orient people, the walls are coloured by floor and a smartphone app is being developed (“I think we're blue. I can't remember,” says one scientist who will move her lab to the Crick next year). Its four basement levels will house sensitive equipment such as electron microscopes, shielded by concrete slabs to block the ever-present vibrations from nearby train and tube lines. Construction has begun on a high-containment lab for working on influenza and other deadly pathogens, as well as facilities for a menagerie of lab animals, including the only collection of opossums used for research in the United Kingdom.

Like many new laboratories, the Crick is designing spaces to encourage interactions between researchers. Each above-ground floor centres around meeting rooms, tea and coffee stations and 'collaboration spaces', meant to increase the odds of fruitful encounters.

“That's one of the things I'm most excited about,” says James Briscoe, a developmental biologist who is moving to the Crick from the NIMR. He has already met the group leaders with whom he will soon share bench space and equipment. Caetano Reis e Sousa, an immunologist coming from the LRI, says that he, like most other principal investigators, already works with colleagues elsewhere. It is the graduate students, postdocs and technicians who will benefit most from the Crick's social engineering, he says. “They are the ones who will establish collaborations and connections that will allow new things to be done.”

However, not everyone buys the argument that a giant fish bowl is needed for immunologists to have tea with physicists, the kind of interaction embodied by an unofficial mantra in many Crick documents and videos: “discovery without boundaries”. The phrase grates on some researchers. “The assumption is, previously, discovery had terrible boundaries,” says Kieron Flanagan, a science and technology policy researcher at the University of Manchester, UK. “And now that they're all in one building, suddenly the discoveries will flow. It's just bollocks.”

The Crick's size is another sticking point. “Everybody believes that science has to get bigger and more capital intensive,” says Flanagan. “There's a good bit of evidence that says small groups are more productive than large ones.”

And its location presents challenges. Building the Crick in one of Europe's biggest cities will be crucial to convincing the best young researchers from around the world to move to the United Kingdom, says Nurse. The city's hospitals offer a population of potential clinical-trial participants not matched anywhere else in the United Kingdom.

But the institute has little room to expand, and has built several facilities off site, including a data centre and animal-breeding facility. A planned trans-London underground railway line, proposed to pass near the site, could overwhelm the vibration-dampening protections and jiggle the institute's sensitive scientific instruments (see Nature 518, 464–465; 2015 ). And then there is the cost of living in London, which has skyrocketed since plans for the Crick were unveiled. Nurse had hoped to buy a block of flats for postdocs and graduate students, but he could not find the money. He is now working on smaller measures to make London more affordable for Crick scientists.

Gerald Rubin, executive director of the Janelia campus, sees the lack of subsidized housing as the institute's only weakness — but worries that it could hamper recruitment. “If the Crick had that, they would probably rapidly become the premier research institute in Europe. If they don't, I think they'll struggle,” he says.

Ripple effects

Nurse says that the Crick will serve as a scientific incubator for the United Kingdom: he hopes that researchers leaving the Crick will take their talents to universities throughout the country. “I say half joking that they should fall in love with somebody who lives here,” he says.

Critics, however, say that Nurse is being glib about the serious economic challenges faced by young Londoners (a postdoc or even principal investigator's salary will not buy a flat anywhere near the institute). And they question whether the Crick will be the incubator that Nurse and the government contend. “I don't see it as being possible to define that as a strategy for the institute — to populate the UK,” says David Stephens, a cell biologist at the University of Bristol. “It could, but there's no de facto reason why it will.” Researchers could just as well move to world-class centres in the United States, Germany or Asia, say Stephens and others.

Some worry that the Crick will become 'too big to fail' — that its public and private funders will put the centre ahead of other priorities. Beyond its £700-million construction costs, the institute will have an annual budget topping £150 million per year (see 'Vital signs'), which will be paid by the government's Medical Research Council (MRC), CRUK and the Wellcome Trust. A flat or even diminished government science budget — increasingly likely after the election this year of a Conservative government that promises cuts — has amplified such concerns. “Taking a large scoop out of the pot for one institute makes it harder for the rest of us to attract funding,” says Stephens, whose lab is supported by the MRC and the Wellcome Trust. Meanwhile, Nurse is currently leading a government review of how the UK research councils (which include the Crick's major funder, the MRC) divvy up money, raising conflict-of-interest concerns.

Nurse says that such complaints are unfounded “scare stories” from scientists who are “terrified about their own funding”. He sees the scale of the Crick as a strength, which will help the institute in terms of both conducting world-leading research and securing financial support. “Having a single large institute, which has been invested in and where people have got a lot of skin in the game, is indeed a good encouragement to make the thing work,” he says. “But it means we have a responsibility to deliver.”

But deliver what? Gauging the ultimate success or failure of the Crick will be difficult. The researchers who will soon move into the institute are already leading scientists, and will continue to produce high-level work. But that is not enough. Cech says that the Crick should be judged on whether it contributes to discoveries that could not have been made by university researchers with the same funds. Wilsdon agrees: “It's going to have a lot of resources in it. It needs to do more than marginally outperform its competitors.”

Nurse is another question mark. He plans to helm the Crick for another five or six years before stepping aside as director. Matthew Freeman, a molecular biologist at the University of Oxford, UK, wonders whether a successor will be able to carry his vision forward. “My sense is this is very much designed in a way Paul wanted it to be. He's put a lot of his own personality and weight and charisma behind establishing this rather unusual model,” says Freeman. “I see this as an exciting experiment, but experiments can fail as well as succeed.”

Nurse concedes that the Crick's loftier goals — creating a nimble, highly collaborative basic-research institute that powers Britain's knowledge economy — are less than certain. “I think we've got a reasonable chance,” he says. But he is open to change. “What if my lack of departments is chaos? If it's chaos, I'll put the white flag up and say, right, we'll do something else,” he says. “I am not a zealot.”

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Callaway, E. Europe’s superlab: Sir Paul’s cathedral. Nature 522, 406–408 (2015).

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