For many researchers, it’s important to love not just their work, but also their workplace. A productive research environment—and a fun, casual atmosphere to alleviate the stress of doing science—is a commonly cited plus of the institutions, both small and large, that topped our 9th annual Best Places to Work in Academia survey.
From year to year, institutions that garner the highest ranks are home to a relatively small number of researchers. Part of their strength lies in a strong sense of collegiality and the attention provided to researchers’ needs. The University of Dundee in Scotland, ranked #6 among international institutions this year, creates an atmosphere that is as playful as it is rigorous. Once a year, life scientists leave the lab for a weekend retreat to party in true Scottish style—with whisky, kilts, and exuberant dancing that leaves participants sore for days afterward. Though the university employs fewer than 500 full-time life science researchers, a collaborative research environment aids the development of special programs, such as a group of scientists that helps spot potential drug targets across labs and translate them into medicines.
Because of their small size, many of the top-ranked institutions are also nimble. Rather than isolating researchers in individual laboratories, they literally knock down the walls to encourage collaboration. Both the University of Dundee and the #1-ranked US institution, the J. David Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco, have built their laboratories with an open plan that they say cross-fertilizes their science. Gladstone researchers also take advantage of the expertise at major institutions in close proximity to their campus.
Though large universities can rarely offer their researchers the camaraderie that comes from a small, tight-knit community, their size provides access to high-end resources. Enterprising life scientists at West Virginia University, this year’s #20 US institution, take advantage of their school’s breadth of brainpower by tapping colleagues in the physics department to build custom tools they need. Large universities can also offer financial security, though no institution, large or small, has been immune to the recent decline in US federal funding. But with private institutions, pharma companies, and even non-US governments, fronting a larger proportion of research dollars—as in this year’s top international place to work, the Weizmann Institute of Science—institutions have kept research running smoothly in the face of economic adversity. Read more about the unique qualities of our winning institutions on the following pages. —Edyta Zielinska
Communal Science At The Gladstone Institutes
The J. David Gladstone Institutes, this year’s #1 US institution, is no newcomer to Best Places to Work in Academia, having ranked in the survey’s top 10 for the past six years in a row. Researchers cite its central location, which enables fruitful partnerships with neighboring institutions; access to cutting-edge equipment in communal core facilities; and shared research space as reasons Gladstone has consistently ranked as a top-notch research institution.
In 2004, the Gladstone Institutes, composed of three separate entities focused on different diseases, moved from San Francisco General Hospital to the University of California, San Francisco, campus in Mission Bay, just two miles down the road. The move put Gladstone not only in a shiny new building, but also “physically at the exact midpoint of five major institutions,” says stem cell and cardiovascular scientist Bruce Conklin—a real boon to research, enabling many collaborations and shared resources.
This dense concentration of researchers also provides fertile opportunities for scientific think tanks and symposia. Last year, Gladstone virologist Eric Verdin, along with scientists from two nearby institutions, founded the Bay Area Aging Meeting, which meets every six months, drawing some 150 researchers who gather for postdoc and graduate student research talks and focused aging-related discussions. “We benefit enormously from the rich and collaborative environment of the San Francisco Bay area,” Verdin says.
Gladstone also encourages collaboration among its own scientists, with large, open rooms containing as many as 90 lab benches, shared equipment stations, and cozy enclaves lining the walls for coffee breaks and casual conversation. “The only reason you know you’re in one person’s lab or the other is looking at a name above the bench,” says Verdin.
And with a research staff of just 300, there’s never a wait for access to Gladstone’s eight core facilities, which provide services such as flow cytometry, microarray analysis, and transgenic mouse lines. “The [stem cell] core has enabled technologies that have catapulted my career,” says Conklin. “Had I been at another institution, I wouldn’t be doing this work.” —Hannah Waters
Public, Popular, and Proud
It didn’t take long for Elena Pugacheva to learn about—and take advantage of—the perks that come with working at a large public university. Shortly after leaving her position at a private cancer center to accept a faculty job at West Virginia University, this year’s #20 US institution, she needed a new, specialized ultrasound machine for her research on cell proliferation in tumor cells. Rather than outsourcing the job to a private company, members of the physics department across campus helped build it. This kind of cross-disciplinary aid was something that simply wasn’t available at the cancer center, she says. “You didn’t have an in-house department that could do that. It’s a big plus here.”
Large public universities make up a quarter of the top 40 US institutions ranked in this year’s Best Places to Work in Academia. And it’s easy to see why: researchers like Pugacheva praise the ease of collaboration, involvement in departmental decisions, solid support of life science research, and importantly, relative shelter from the financial crunch of the last several years.
When Kevin Glenn, a clinician and researcher at the University of Iowa, #31 on this year’s US list, experienced a delay in federal funding last year, his department stepped in and covered his expenses. “They just said, ‘We said we were going to support you, and we’re going to support you,’” says Glenn. “They didn’t bat an eye. They had the resources to do it.”
In addition, as National Institutes of Health funding becomes scarcer, having part of your salary guaranteed by a public university relieves the stress of constantly going after grants to ensure a full paycheck, says Kelly Standifer, chair of the department of pharmaceutical sciences at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, this year’s #14 US institution. “There’s a little bit less pressure,” says Standifer, who has worked at public institutions since 1995. “You feel like you are able to conduct all facets of your [job]—teaching and research—without having to shortchange one of those.” —Megan Scudellari
Scottish Hospitality at the University of Dundee
The annual retreat of the College of Life Sciences at the University of Dundee, #6 on this year’s international list, kicks off with a vigorous Scottish country party known as a Céilidh, where faculty and students representing more than 50 nationalities break a sweat while attempting traditional dance moves that leave muscles aching. In addition to being an excuse to drink whisky and wear kilts, the team dance encourages the camaraderie that Dundee researchers cite as one of the reasons they love working there.
Set in the idyllic town of Dundee on the eastern coast of Scotland, the College boasts a world-class life sciences research community. With no doors or walls to keep them separate, its nearly 500 full-time researchers toil away in open laboratories within eyesight of each other. “We’re a high-powered research environment in a low-pressure living environment,” says Dean of Research Mike Ferguson.
In 2006, Ferguson led the effort to set up a one-of-a-kind drug discovery unit at the College. The 30-person team performs costly processes such as drug screening to help academics identify and develop drug targets, providing the College with a translational engine that “doesn’t exist in most universities,” he says. “We’re very aware that where possible, we should be thinking about new targets for drugs,” adds John Rouse, a Dundee biochemist who discovered the SLX4 family of DNA repair enzymes.
The College is also home to the Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification, which specializes in forensic anthropology and human identification. The Centre has participated in relief efforts for global disasters such as the 2004 Asian tsunami, and more recently, helped secure a number of high-profile pedophile convictions.
In the past decade, the university has spun out more than 20 companies that have generated some 500 jobs in the city of Dundee alone, earning the respect of the local community. Dundee’s taxi drivers “say they know all about the College of Life Sciences and that they’re very proud of it,” says geneticist Irwin McLean, who found a genetic link between allergies, asthma, and eczema. (See his article, “The Allergy Gene,” The Scientist, December 2010.) —Cristina Luiggi
What Economic Crisis?
Although the US government remains the biggest funder of life science research in the United States, grants from private institutions and industry collaborations are outpacing the growth in government dollars, and supporting many of this year’s top institutions during this time of economic hardship.
For example, at this year’s #1 US institution, the J. David Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco, money from the hard-hit National Institutes of Health (NIH) makes up less of the research funding pie than in previous years, with pharmaceutical and biotech collaborations, Department of Defense funding, and philanthropic donations from William K. Bowes Jr., Tad Taube, and the like comprising larger slices. Gladstone spokesperson Jeanette Borzo expects the trend to continue, with private philanthropic funding rising from its present level of 14 percent of the operating budget to as much as 25 percent in 2015.
The 3rd-ranked US institution, the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Washington, has also benefited from increases in private funding—mainly from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation—which outpaced increases in federal funding. Similarly, the Carnegie Institution for Science, whose Stanford branches ranked 4th among US institutions this year, received hefty grants from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation that helped faculty members “spread their wings” and start entirely new research projects, according to Carnegie spokesperson Susanne Garvey.
Outside the United States, Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science, the #1 institution on this year’s international list, has received increasing support from Israeli and European Union funding sources, offsetting a 6 percent drop in US government funding since 2007, according to Vice President Haim Garty. “As a result, the total grant money not only did not decrease during the economic crisis, but actually increased by as much as 20 percent since 2007,” he says in an e-mail. These funds, together with sharing of internal resources at the institution, helped “enable continuity of high-quality research in rough periods.” —Bob Grant