The Art Of Planning And Managing A Research Laboratory

[Ed. note: Max Perutz shared the 1962 Nobel Prize in chemistiy with John Kendrew for developing the X-ray diffraction techniques that revealed the structures of macromolecules and, thereby launched the science of molecular biology. But more recently, he has been lauded for his spectacular success as a manager of scientists. In particular, the accolades single out his tenure as head of the Medical Research Council’s molecular biology laboratory in Cambridge, from 1947 to 1979. What makes

By | August 8, 1988

[Ed. note: Max Perutz shared the 1962 Nobel Prize in chemistiy with John Kendrew for developing the X-ray diffraction techniques that revealed the structures of macromolecules and, thereby launched the science of molecular biology. But more recently, he has been lauded for his spectacular success as a manager of scientists. In particular, the accolades single out his tenure as head of the Medical Research Council’s molecular biology laboratory in Cambridge, from 1947 to 1979. What makes a good manager? The Scientist asked Perutz for his opinion.]

In 1959, when the Unit for Molecular Biology was still part of the Cavendish Laboratory, our budding fame brought a Soviet delegation to discover how I had planned the unit. Had I selected staff as Noah gathered animals for his Ark—two mathematicians, two physicists, two biochemists, and two biologists—and waited for their discoveries to hatch? Our visitors did not believe me when I said that we had grown naturally, like a tree.

Planning and managing a basic research laboratory is very different from running one for applied research, let alone a business. In applied research there is often a clear objective to be reached by directed teamwork, while in basic research you are exploring unknown territory. Such a laboratory cannot be created at the stroke of a pen. It must evolve, attracting talented people who will come only if they know they will be given a free band. The director’s most important task is not to lay down the law, but to listen to young colleagues, discuss their work, make them feel it is worthwhile, and help them to get the facilities they need.

The director and senior scientist most of the time, and carry out their own research; otherwise they lose touch. But this is now out-moded in many universities, where committees and paperwork are expected to take precedence. Some directors run laboratories as factories for their own publications and lecture tours, repeating stock lectures like a gramophone record in different places, often to the same people. One candidate for a Cambridge chair listed over 30 publications in one year, all carrying his name as co-author. I wondered whether he, let alone anyone had read them all.

Following the tradition established at Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory, I put my name on papers only when I had contributed scientific work, not when I had merely suggested experiments, given advice, or helped in writing up the results. This made younger scientists feel that they worked for themselves, not the boss, and was a vital stimulus to originality It did not harm my career.

In many laboratories I have visited, individuals or small groups work in isolation, since communication between them is discouraged. People lock their rooms when they go home, lest anyone find out what they are up to, and meet colleagues only in the elevator. In 1960, when our new Laboratory of Molecular Biology was being built, projected costs were exceeding the approved estimate. To economize, I asked the architects to omit locks from our doors. This paid off in more ways than one. During the late 1960s, political unrest at U.K. universities led students to break open directors’ rooms and rifle locked files. As my room and files were always open, I had no trouble. Besides, open doors are symbolic of our laboratory’s atmosphere and tradition. I distrust scientists who complain about others stealing their ideas—I have always had to force new ideas down people’s throats.

I knew one U.S. professor who got furious if he saw anyone reading in the library during the day when they ought to be at the bench. But in my opinion, many young scientists work too much and read and think too little. Some directors have tackled this problem by making people clock in at nine and out at five, thus ensuring that no one works longer than the official hours. But such controls are a mistake. Science is not a nine to five job; it is usually better to finish the task at hand, whatever the hours.

The benefits of trust rather than control were brought home to me when a labor union told the Medical Research Council’s technical officers to strike. Ours refused, because they enjoyed their work.

Discussion thrives at mealtime. We have a roof canteen where people congregate for lunch and for coffee and tea breaks, and argue as long as they like. Because seminars often attract only those already connected with the subject, we concentrate them in one week at the beginning of the academic year. It’s called Crick Week after Francis Crick, who suggested this way of getting everyone to know what was happening, and who was the seminars’ life and soul before he left for California.

In many U.S. laboratories, financial disincentives discourage collaboration because each group has its separate grants and budgets. Sharing may involve financial loss. We avoid this problem by having a single budget for the entire laboratory and controlling expenditure by individual groups only when necessary.

Some years ago I visited the famous biochemist Otto Warburg in Berlin. He told me indignantly that after a recent lecture a student had dared to contradict him. “In the old days, such a thing could not have happened,” he said. “If it did, Richard Willsëtter would have put him in his place with a frown.” Our students are encouraged to contradict their elders because it makes the students think, and to use first names, because science knows no hierarchy. In the British Scientific Civil Service everyone carries a title, but the Medical Research Council’s scientific staff is graded only according to salaries—which promotes informality. Moreover, salaries depend on scientific merit, not the size of research groups, and people can reach the highest grades even if they work alone.

The best laboratories are nourished by streams of graduate and postdoctoral students who bring fresh ideas and new approaches to old problems—which is easier to achieve when linked to a good university. Our laboratory has a turnover of about 25% per year, and scientific pilgrims come from all over the world.

The desirable qualities of a laboratory chief are as hard to define as those of a good spouse. According to one psychologist’s survey, men use their managerial jobs to bolster their masculinity and sublimate aggression, greed, and envy Such personalities do not make the best leaders of research. The positive qualities needed are judged best from descriptions of great heads of laboratories of the past. Noted Russian physicist Peter Kapitsa once described how Ernest Rutherford ran the Cavendish Laboratory:

“England provided the most outstanding physicists, and I now begin to understand why: the English school develops individuality extremely widely and provides infinite room for the manifestation of the personality... [At Cavendish] they often do work which is so incredible in its conception that it would be simply ridiculed in Russia. The Crocodile [Kapitsa’s nickname for Rutherford] values so highly that a person should express himself that he not only allows them to work on their themes but also encourages them and tries to put sense into these sometimes futile plans... it is not surprising that he is capable of making 30 people work.” (From Rutherford: Simple Genius, by David Wilson, Hodder and Stoughton, 1983.)

British physicist Sir Nevill Mott wrote of Niels Bohr (The Scientist, October 15, 1986, page 15): “We were in and out of each others’ rooms all day, and so was Bohr. Nobody dreamt of keeping an idea to himself; our joy in life wasto tell it to other people to get it criticized and if possible accepted. Bohr himself, if he had a new idea, would ... tell it to the first person he could find... I learned [from Bohr] Bobri what physics was all about, that it was a social activity and that a teacher should be with his students.”

Most scientists are enthusiastic about their own ideas and discoveries. Rutherford and Bohr were exceptional in being enthusiastic about those of others. It was this generous spirit, the atmosphere of all things being possible, along with their scientific professionalism, intellectual force, and imaginative genius, rather than “management,” that made their laboratories inspiring and successful places in which to work.


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