Focus: Science: Inside the Nobel Prize Factory ; Yet Again the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge Has Won the Highest Accolade. Steve Connor Visits an Institution Whose Uniquely Inspiring Atmosphere Has Given the World an Unprecedented Twelve Laureates
Connor, Steve, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)
Standing outside the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge there is little indication that this unattractive block of bricks houses the most successful research centre in Britain - if not the world - in terms of Nobel prizes.
It is a typical example of Sixties neo-brutalist architecture, with a 21st-century afterthought jutting rather incongruously from the front porch like a crab on stilts. Visitors and patients at the nearby Addenbrooke's Hospital could be forgiven for walking past the LMB without realising that this rather nondescript suite of laboratories can now lay claim to at least 13 Nobels, including the three picked up last week by its former researchers Sydney Brenner, Sir John Sulston and Robert Horvitz.
The typical paraphernalia of science litters the corridors of the LMB. Freezers, cabinets, centrifuge machines and other "white goods" of the modern research unit are stacked along the walls to exploit every scrap of space. The overcrowded and messy laboratories opening off each corridor are no different to those you would expect to see in universities anywhere in the world. Walking into these scientific workshops, there is again nothing that explains why this laboratory, of all those in Britain, should be so successful in winning the most coveted prize in science.
It is only when you talk to the scientists themselves that something special begins to emerge. They talk about not having to suffer the bureaucracy that dogs their university colleagues; the sense of community spirit and co-operation within the lab; and the freedom they have been given to chase their dreams of discovery. Above all, they talk about the "LMB culture" - something that everyone appears to be aware of, but few can define precisely.
Nevertheless, it is this culture that has fostered perhaps the most successful research operation in biology. Some have likened the place to a Nobel- prize factory, churning out world-beating discoveries almost to order. But that is not an analogy that draws favour with Sir Aaron Klug, one of the LMB's former directors and himself a Nobel laureate. "In a factory you know what you're going to make. Here we plant things that grow and mature. It takes a long time," he says.
If there is any single element that typifies the LMB culture it is the time that its scientists are given to study a problem. It is said that Fred Sanger, one of the few scientists to win two Nobels, went through a fallow patch lasting many years before he hit his second rich vein of discovery. Equally, John Walker, who won a Nobel for his research on the energy molecules of the cell, would not have solved the problem if he had had to rely on short-term grants.
Right from the outset, the ethos of those who created the LMB was to give scientists the time and the freedom - in other words, the money - to do what they wanted. Unlike so many others elsewhere, Francis Crick and Jim Watson, the laboratory's two most famous Nobel laureates, were never asked to fill in performance charts or accountability forms in the run-up to their discovery of the DNA double helix.
The origins of the laboratory stem from a meeting in 1947 at the Athenaeum, the London club, of Sir Edward Mellanby, the formidable head of the Medical Research Council at the time, and the physicist Sir Lawrence Bragg who wanted a new unit to study the molecular structure of living things. As they lunched, Mellanby agreed to set aside money to fund a laboratory with John Kendrew and Max Perutz as its founding members. The pair went on to win joint Nobel prizes for their work on the structure of proteins.
Perutz, who died this year, stamped his personality on the new research centre. "Experience had taught me that laboratories often fail because their scientists never talk to each other," he wrote in 1996. He set up a lab canteen managed by his wife, Gisela, to stimulate the exchange of ideas on a daily basis. …