- ASHBURN, Virginia (Reuters)
- Gerald Rubin is looking for someone who can take a picture of a thought.
- To do it, he and colleagues are harnessing the powerful
force of cold, hard cash -- Howard Hughes' cash, to be exact.
- They are building a new $400 million laboratory in the
green countryside outside Washington, D.C. and hope to attract the brightest
and most unconventional minds in science to find a way to look into a person's
brain and see what it is doing.
- And they want to take their time doing it. "In a
100-year timeframe we want to understand human consciousness," said
- Rubin and colleagues at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute
-- one of the world's richest philanthropies with an endowment worth $11.3
billion -- are approaching this ticklish problem backwards. They have bought
a 280-acre farm in Ashburn, Virginia, and are building a new kind of research
- Only now, halfway through its construction, are they
settling on what kind of research they want to do and looking for the people
to do it.
- "We are (like) a biotechnology company whose product
is new knowledge and which has infinitely patient investors," Rubin
told reporters on a recent tour, comparing the foundation to a corporation.
- How did they settle on imaging thought?
- "We wanted to pick an important biomedical problem
but we wanted to pick a problem that wasn't easily addressed at academic
- One area that might meet these criteria was the question
of how brain cells store and process information.
- Rubin and the other founders of Janelia Farm -- HHMI
President Thomas Cech and chief scientific officer David Clayton -- polled
scientists on what they thought the biggest problem in future biomedical
research would be.
- "They all say imaging," Rubin said. As with
all "basic" scientific research, the researchers do not know
what they might discover or its potential applications.
- While biologists have a rough idea of what goes on in
a cell, current scans all record the action indirectly, by measuring glucose
uptake, for instance.
- CAPTURING DREAMS
- What if you could take a picture of a brain cell at the
very moment it recorded a thought?
- Trying to do this will require the expertise of neurobiologists,
physicists, molecular biologists, chemists, geneticists, instrument designers
and computer scientists.
- Those who are interested will hear a beguiling call:
"We'll give you money, lots of money, and we won't ask too many questions,"
- Hughes, who founded the Hughes Aircraft Company and helped
turn TWA in a major airline, founded HHMI in 1953. Hughes Aircraft went
to the Institute after his death in 1976.
- Rubin said the HHMI board of trustees want to act like
- "Venture capitalists will assume that many projects
won't pay off but that some will pay big," Rubin said.
- Janelia Farm will operate on the same assumption.
- "If someone tells me they are doing something with
a 90 percent chance of success, I'll tell them they are not being creative
enough -- to go find something more adventuresome," Rubin said.
- To some degree this has been the philosophy of the HHMI,
a virtual institute that funds scientists already working at universities
across the country.
- Janelia Farm will take the anti-academic approach even
further. Rubin said the plan is to do away with tenure, and publish-or-perish
mentalities that he says can block collaboration and long-term thinking.
- FREEDOM TO BE DIFFERENT
- The foundation's deep pockets allow considerable flexibility.
"In a typical university, you have to convince a third party of what
you want to do," Rubin said. "We are not going to take a penny
of money from anybody else."
- About 10 percent, or 300, of HHMI's 3,000 scientists
will eventually work at Janelia Farm, Rubin said.
- The HHMI team hired New York architect Rafael Vinoly
to design a campus on the site, chosen because it was close to Dulles International
Airport and HHMI's headquarters in nearby Chevy Chase, Maryland.
- The new center, 40 minutes by car from Washington, is
due to be finished in March 2006.
- The laboratories were designed with nothing specific
in mind. "We looked and looked at every instrument scientists used
and asked, 'What's the biggest one' and then we made the rooms big enough
to hold it," Rubin said.
- The campus includes a 96-room hotel and apartment complex.
The aim is to encourage sabbaticals, short-term collaborations and casual
- Built like a terrace into a hillside that gently slopes
to the Potomac River, the building has wide glass corridors to let in plenty
of natural light and a view across a flood plain where no one else can
ever build anything.
- But will scientists working with no deadline and little
oversight be tempted to spend their days gazing across the green landscape
instead of striving for genius?
- "That's a risk we are willing to take," Rubin