Sir Paul Nurse in the main atrium of the Francis Crick Institute © David Parry

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A decade or so ago senior researchers in the capital’s medical universities decided the time had come to put aside ancient rivalries. “We realised that unnecessary competition made London less than the sum of its parts,” says Sir Robert Lechler, vice-principal for health at King’s College London (KCL). “We decided that by collaborating we could make London the biomedical capital of the world.”

A spectacular symbol of that collaboration has risen in London’s so-called Knowledge Quarter, next to the British Library and St Pancras station. The £650m Francis Crick Institute will carry out discovery research, investigating fundamental biological processes across the biomedical sciences.

One thousand scientists and 250 support staff will move into the Crick this autumn, as the institute gears up to recruit a further 250 scientists from next year. The capital’s three leading research universities — KCL, Imperial College London and University College London — are partners in the Crick and will second academics to the institute.

“We see the Crick as an international beacon for UK science, attracting researchers from around the world,” says Sir Paul Nurse, the institute’s director. “The discoveries we make here will establish our place at the forefront of science in London, the UK and worldwide.”

Some critics have said that the organisations funding the Crick — the government’s Medical Research Council (MRC) and two charities, Cancer Research UK and the Wellcome Trust — should not have placed it in overcrowded and expensive central London. But the institute’s leadership insist that no other location would have such international appeal.

Another point is that the Crick is replacing three laboratories in the London area: the MRC’s Mill Hill facility and Cancer Research UK labs at Clare Hall and Lincoln’s Inn Fields. These labs, built in the mid-20th century and no longer fit for the 21st century, will close after their staff have relocated to the Crick. “To have moved away from London would have been hugely disruptive to our research effort,” Nurse says.

The institute is named after Francis Crick, who with James Watson discovered the structure of the DNA molecule in 1953. The building, which has steel, glass and terracotta cladding, was designed by HOK, based in New York, with PLP Architecture in London. Built by Laing O’Rourke, it was completed within budget but several months late and has 1m sq ft of space over 12 floors, eight above ground and four below. The masonry and the vaulted roof echo features of St Pancras station over the road. The roof is arranged into two shells — an aesthetic feature that also conceals the heating and cooling units and incorporates solar panels.

A scientist uses an electron microscope in one of the 120 laboratories © AFP

The design is aimed at encouraging interaction and multidisciplinary working. Four “laboratory neighbourhoods” are linked by two atriums, which cross at the centre of the building to create a hub with break areas, collaboration space and a large central staircase. Walkways and meeting areas criss-cross the main atrium and connect neighbourhoods. Glass walls promote openness by allowing people to see into and out of labs.

“We didn’t want any physical barriers between our 120 labs,” Nurse says. “It’s all about open-plan, collaborative working and direct sightlines, in an environment that I hope will encourage a sort of gentle anarchy.”

‘Laboratory neighbourhoods’ are connected across the institute’s atriums © David Parry

The Crick’s administrative structure is also intended to create constructive “scientific anarchy”. There are no departments or divisions, just the 120 research teams with about 10 scientists in each.

Another unusual feature of Crick is that most of the researchers will not have permanent posts but will be appointed for a maximum of 12 years (with a review after six years). When their term is up, the institute will help them find a senior scientific job elsewhere — probably in a university — including a transfer package.

“We want to provide a pipeline of the brightest young researchers from around the world into UK institutions,” says Nurse. He admits to concern that the threat of Brexit — and the image of Britain as a country becoming less friendly to foreigners — may put some people off, but he still expects this autumn’s recruitment drive to arouse strong international interest.

The Francis Crick Institute in central London © AFP

The Crick focuses on discovery science and will not carry out clinical research, though there will be extensive rodent facilities for animal experiments. However, it does aim to nurture partnerships with pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies to translate discoveries into commercial products to combat disease. The first collaboration, with pharmaceuticals group GlaxoSmithKline, is already in operation.

Any intellectual property that results will belong to the Crick, but the institute intends to take a generous attitude to licensing and technology transfer. “We’re adopting a somewhat different approach to many institutions, which are always thinking about how much money they can make out of a discovery,” Nurse says.

London’s scientific leaders are well aware that the city’s weak point as a global scientific powerhouse is the low level of commercial exploitation of its research — a characteristic it shares with New York. Both cities have great science and great financial institutions but a relatively poor record of supporting science-based spinout companies. “London and Boston are on a par in terms of scientific publications but London has only 10 per cent of Boston’s commercialisation activity,” says KCL’s Lechler.

To improve that record London needs to enlist help from collaborating institutions beyond the city centre where the high cost and low availability of suitable land and facilities are a daunting barrier for biotechnology start-ups, Nurse says. For instance, Imperial College’s huge new Imperial West campus on the edge of town at White City and, on the other side of London, UCL East on the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in Stratford could host spinout companies. More opportunities lie even further afield; one is Stevenage Bioscience Catalyst at GSK’s main UK research centre in Hertfordshire.

Then there is the question of how much London’s scientific institutions should extend their collaboration to the other corners of south-east England’s “golden triangle”: Oxford and Cambridge. MedCity, set up in 2014 to promote medicine in London, has decided to do so. “From abroad, people see south-east England as a cluster so it makes sense to bring in Oxbridge,” says Lechler. “Oxford is enthusiastic about coming in, Cambridge a bit sniffy.”

Sir Robert Lechler of King’s College London © Tracey Croggon
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