The Life Sciences Institute (LSI) at the University of Michigan has a football field-length corridor running through it. Coming off this thoroughfare are glossy white and maple office clusters, open lab spaces with sleek movable benches and walls of windows, bright conference rooms, and eating areas equipped with wipe boards and spacious roundtables. The entire setting is a paragon of design for the carrying out of cutting-edge, 21st century science. "It's a great building," says Lois Weisman, a research professor at LSI. "I do think that my productivity and intellectual ability improved when I went to a better building. ... It stimulates thinking to be in a place with a lot of natural light." It also comes with a modern price tag: $96 million.
Building projects like the LSI, which was completed in 2003, are becoming increasingly popular even as construction costs continue to climb. Since the late 1990s, there's been a surge in universities building biomedical labs, says Victor Cardona, an architect at the Detroit-based SmithGroup. "Up till last year funding for NIH grants given to universities was growing exponentially, and universities ... needed to build buildings to house [newly recruited] researchers." The University of Chicago built its Center for Integrative Science at a cost of $200 million, while Arizona State University poured $74 million into its Biodesign Institute. Between 2004 and 2005, academic institutions set aside $9.1 billion to construct new research spaces, $1.5 billion more than in the previous two years, with the majority devoted to the biological and medical sciences, according to a survey by the National Science Foundation. A smaller but still impressive $2.2 billion went to redesign older spaces.
Over the past decade, the NIH began to give higher status to grant submissions attached to facilities with state-of-the-art open lab designs. Willie McCullough, director of the Research Facilities Improvement Program (RFIP) at the NIH's National Center for Research Resources, says peer reviewers and administrators of the program allocate funding based on the applicant's existing research grants - a sign of scientific merit - as well as the feasibility of the construction plan. Of the 150 applications they receive annually, those that include flexible, open lab layouts that support team-based research rank higher, he says.
According to RFIP guidelines, "the proposed construction project must enhance the institution's ability to conduct, expand, improve, or maintain biomedical/behavioral research," but there is little in the way of hard evidence that the flexibility and interdisciplinary interaction being touted as benefits of newer building design actually foster better research, acknowledges McCullough.
Laboratory designs have come a long way from the workshop-style set-ups of the mid-19th century, when a single person was designing and running experiments in a small, closed space, says Daniel Todes, a historian of biology and medicine at Johns Hopkins University. Before World War II, industry labs were indistinguishable from factories, and in the postwar country club era, research facilities were geographically isolated as luxurious centers of scientific thought. Since then, research and development have co-localized for industry labs, and the latest buzzword in academia is open design.
What is most important in a lab space today? According to Tim Studt, editor in chief of RD Magazine, it's a combination of things: "Flow of materials, flow of people, safety, accessibility, energy efficiency, [and] recruitment potential" are all factors the judges consider in the magazine's lab of the year award for the best newly designed and renovated constructions.
Designing open lab space - which is becoming synonymous with new lab design - in order to foster collaboration is a major international trend. And in constructions like the LSI, such spaces are organized into neighborhoods of several principal investigators with common interests. "In many cases, disciplines are disappearing in modern institutions ... they set up these open spaces to get a physiologist to sit next to a bacteriologist," says Todes. While the idea of organizing people by problem areas rather than strict disciplines is not new (Bell Labs began using this model in the late 1930s), according to Bill Leslie, a historian of science at Johns Hopkins, it's enjoyed a recent surge of popularity. "The major thing that we've seen in the last few years is interaction, collaboration between scientists," says SmithGroup's Cardona, principal architect on the LSI project. Translational research has started to ask the question: "how many parts of the system relate to each other?"
A more open lab building replete with common meeting areas may also have the same effect as a manicured lawn or new kitchen when trying to sell a house: It may not be the deciding factor, but it also can't hurt when trying to make a sale. "As far as recruiting is concerned, a researcher who is offered better research space is more apt to move," says McCullough. "If you're building a team where you want to have this synergy between researchers, this is a part of recruiting them [and] retaining them," he says.
The same goes for industry, according to Glenn Batchelder, CEO of Cambridge, Mass.-based Acceleron Pharmaceuticals and a previous vice president of operations at Millennium Pharmaceuticals. "A priority in any company is this notion of collaboration - make sure you don't wall off labs. [Millennium's version] created a natural flow; people in different areas of science had to actually walk by each other," says Batchelder. Scientists "like to have their own defined space and sense of privacy, but in the end tend to be rewarded by the fact that they're ... connected with people."
But open space comes at a cost, says Emory University researcher Brian Evavold. The research building in Atlanta where he works is adjacent to a new one with an open design, and he says his neighbors lose out on some independence. "I think investigators like that less," he says "I would still stay here if given the choice."
"It's a matter of learning how to share," says Cardona. "And it is a culture difference." Open design suits a specific personality type, and scientists moving from closed to open spaces either embrace the new system or they don't. Daniel Klionsky, a research professor at LSI, says the scientists who have moved into LSI are self-selected to be open to collaboration, and despite the lack of physical boundaries, "people respect each other's space."
Open access also allows efficient pooling of resources in shared rooms housing mass spectrometers, large confocal microscopes, and tissue culture setups. Sharing equipment like an analytical balance is cost effective, says Robin Miskimins, professor at the University of South Dakota, which is a major benefit at a grant-starved university such as her own. (see "The Inequality of Science," p. 26) Klionsky's neighbor shares his centrifuge. "He doesn't need to spend $30,000 on that piece of equipment [which] in reality you only need to use it a couple of hours a day," he says.
Furthermore, "the difference in terms of noise and heat generation [is] huge," says Klionsky. "If you have a room full of freezers and fridges, that's a lot of heat." And a set-up with generic open lab spaces surrounded by specialized lab support spaces makes it easy to shift space among researchers, particularly in academic settings.
"Industry has been the leader in lab design, and government and universities have followed those trends," says Leslie. But in the case of open lab design, universities - with their greater turnaround and a more collaborative environment - embraced the trend first, with industry now following, says Cardona.
At the same time, as other instrumentation gets smaller and cheaper, like the PCR machines that are "stacked three high" at some genome centers, according to Cardona, personalized versions of them are taking up more bench space. Particularly in deep-pocketed industry labs, "with the evolution of technology and more and more things becoming automated, ... bench space becomes dedicated to more equipment than it used to," says Batchelder.
With about 20 lab design firms in the United States and abroad, the industry is small but growing. However, there is little hard evidence that a new or renovated lab translates into better science. "People have always thought that it was worth spending that money for reasons of prestige because you'd attract better talent," says Leslie. "Architects have imagined and so have their clients that having a beautiful building would be really important [but] ... deciding whether you get much payoff from that over the long run is pretty hard. I don't know that there's any way to measure that. All I can say is that a lot of really ugly old buildings have produced some really good science over the years."
"You always draw a certain bit of your mood and your inspiration from the surroundings, so it's nice to be in a brand new building," says Anuj Kumar, an assistant professor at LSI. But does this translate into better science? "Maybe. That's a tougher one to quantify," he says.
Ted Weidner, assistant vice chancellor of facilities management and planning at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, as well as a consultant with his Lincoln, Neb.-based company, Facility Asset Consulting, is trying to bring some evidence to bear on whether the amount institutions spend on their research facilities might correlate with the research funding they receive from the NSF. It's a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem, of course, but Weidner expects to find that nicer buildings do not necessarily bring in the research dollars. "On my campus as an example, we have physicists in a 100-year-old physics building doing nanotechnology research," Weidner says.
According to Weidner, it's nearly impossible to measure the real impact of efforts to encourage collaboration. Architects have been talking for a long time about common spaces encouraging interaction, but "people have a way of subverting architect's ideas," says Leslie. "They don't behave in the ways that architects expect them to behave. You can design a beautiful corridor, but people will stay in their offices and stare at the computer screen," he says. And the future may be more about speedy networks than efficient spaces, anyway. "Virtual laboratories are the wave of the future," says Leslie. "Networks of people who combine to work on a problem" can share data electronically across the world. "You don't have to be in a lab building anymore."
These institutions join around 60 others that hope to put increasing pressure on the publishing giant in ongoing negotiations for a new nationwide licensing agreement.