Issue Date: March 3, 2008
Max Planck Society Moves Stateside
One morning you receive a phone call. "Would you like a few million dollars a year in funding, for the rest of your scientific career, to pursue any research you want, with no grant writing, no teaching, and few strings attached?" the caller asks. It might sound like a crank call. Then again, it could be an offer to direct one of Germany's prestigious Max Planck Institutes.
"Some directors refer to that phone call as a sort of scientific Annunciation," says Jonathan Gershenzon, a director at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology, Jena. "The angel taps you on the shoulder and says, 'You've been chosen.' "
Those chosen by the Max Planck Society (MPS) get a cut of its $2.5 billion annual budget. The German government supplies MPS with the funding to support some 260 directors at 78 institutes, which focus on topics such as plasma physics, polymer chemistry, and infectious diseases. The public money is given according to the following logic: If you pick out brilliant researchers and give them ample and unrestricted funds to be creative, good things will happen.
The rationale has merit. The Times of London placed MPS first in its 2006 ranking of nonacademic research institutions. Since 1948, MPS scientists have won 17 Nobel Prizes, including Gerhardt Ertl's 2007 prize in chemistry. A potpourri of textbook breakthroughs has occurred at Max Planck Institutes. World-changing standouts are Karl Ziegler's methods for polymerizing ethylene and propylene to make polyethylene and polypropylene, key innovations underlying the ongoing Polymer Age. The famous 1950s patents made nearly $1 billion for the society and won Ziegler the Nobel Prize.
The MPS's modus operandi of giving exceptional researchers free rein to do science is often compared with the philosophy of the U.S.'s Howard Hughes Medical Institute. HHMI is an uncommonly wealthy nonprofit foundation that funds a comparable number of top researchers, but which has an operating budget of just a third of that of MPS. Unlike HHMI, MPS places its directors in institutes that are physically separate from universities.
MPS is now exporting its strategy stateside. Lured to Palm Beach County by a $190 million donation from Florida state and county governments, MPS is establishing a bioimaging research institute that will support three directors and many visiting scientists.
The cross-Atlantic romance was sparked by former governor Jeb Bush back in 2005 when he visited MPS headquarters in Munich. Bush was hunting for partners to help diversify Florida's economy into biotechnology. At the time, La Jolla, Calif.-based research powerhouse Scripps Research Institute was already establishing Scripps Florida, a biomedical outpost near Florida Atlantic University, Jupiter. These potential new neighbors sweetened the deal, says Peter Gruss, president of MPS.
MPS's Florida institute will focus on devising noninvasive imaging methods to visualize molecular properties of biological tissue. The hope is that it will produce excellent science that will raise the profile of MPS abroad, Gruss says.
Getting the satellite institute up and running will also serve as a learning exercise for MPS. Because the society cannot by law spend German public money abroad, it will have to do some American-style fund-raising in order to sustain itself after Florida's government seed money runs out. Fund-raising for science is practically unheard of in Germany, but MPS decided to give it a try in 2006 and has since raised more than $500 million from private sources. Gruss is also investigating whether the German government will relax its restrictions against spending public funds outside German borders, and he plans to look to the U.S.'s National Institutes of Health for financial support of the new institute.
Back to those phone calls. The search has now begun for three directors to run the new institute, a process that is typically a lengthy, top-secret affair. When directors are hired, they are hired for life, so MPS really has only one opportunity to be picky-and picky it is.
Once a selection committee has set its sights on a candidate, 10 internationally renowned researchers are asked to make written assessments of that candidate-people who just may happen to be the candidate's top competitors. Each letter is discussed in excruciating detail at one of the large, triannual director's meetings. Candidates who have been in the pipeline for a year can be kiboshed if 80% of the other MPS directors don't vote them in. Some directors say they cringe when they think retrospectively of the scrutiny they experienced during the selection process.
But the payoff is huge. Directing a Max Planck institute is "the opportunity of a lifetime," says Robert Schl??gl, a director at the Fritz Haber Max Planck Institute, Berlin. "You go from a situation where you are only limited by resources to a situation where you are only limited by your own creativity."
For Elena Conti, a new director at the Max Planck Institute for Biochemistry, Munich, it was the "total freedom" that enticed her to join. "I can do things here that I don't have to defend," she tells C&EN. "Typically you apply for grants when the work is already done. Here I can just go for it, even if it is difficult. I can try things that might have a tough time getting funded."
"In fact, you are encouraged to pursue high-risk science," Gershenzon adds.
But does the complete autonomy and ample budget really permit Max Planck researchers to achieve research goals from high-risk ideas that they could not have attained elsewhere? Stefan Hell thinks so. The director at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry, Göttingen, says that he could not have rewritten textbook physics without the society's support of his rule-breaking research.
As a graduate student at the University of Heidelberg, Hell wondered whether the fuzzy pictures of light microscopes could be somehow cleared up. "I began to have a gut feeling that spatial resolution of light microscopes could be improved to the nanometer level-even with conventional lenses," he tells C&EN.
Hell knew Abbe's rule, which dictates that the resolution of light microscopes is limited by the wavelength of light traversing its optics. But he wondered whether he could do better than this 19th-century decree of physics allowed.
What he couldn't do, however, was get an independent research position. Nobody thought he could really break Abbe's rule, he says. "People wanted me to work on other optical problems, not my own ideas. I spent a number of lonely years, wandering around, living on short-term scholarships and grants," he says.
While at a research institute in Finland, he worked out the theory for breaking the Abbe barrier, published it, and wondered whether experimentalists with the right equipment would scoop him. That's around the time two Max Planck directors happened to see one of his talks. They invited him to lead a junior research group at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry, and he joined in 1997.
A decade later, their risk paid off. Hell proved his theory in the lab, breaking the Abbe barrier, initially by a factor of 10, now closer to a factor of 15. The best resolution of his current-generation microscope is slightly below 20 nm, compared with a standard confocal microscope's hundreds of nanometers resolution.
He has applied the technology to biological systems, showing that fluorescent-tagged protein clusters on a membrane can be imaged. This application suggests Hell's innovation could be a boon for real-time imaging in cells.
Along the way, Hell was promoted to full MPS director, and Leica Microsystems began selling a commercial version of his microscope.
Hell's path from junior group leader to director exemplifies the society's recent efforts to take risks on people who may not have the international repute required to land a director job.
"If you look at the time when the Nobel Laureates did the experiments that led to the prize, about 80% were done before the age of 40," Gruss says. "It's the time when these people are most creative. We want to create a framework to attract these minds."
The same junior group leader program that initially sponsored Hell's research enticed Wolfgang Fischle to go back to Germany instead of seeking a tenure-track position in the U.S., where he had done his graduate work and postdocs.
The way Fischle sees it, if he got a tenure-track position at a top university in the U.S., the probability that he would get tenure after five years, even if he was really successful, was pretty low. At the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry, he has the same five years to do what he hopes will be excellent work, but without the teaching and grant-writing responsibilities.
"At a U.S. university, you may get a good start-up package, but you still have to apply" for an NIH grant, he says. "Here, I don't have to apply for anything to get started. I can just focus on getting my group up and running."
MPS does such a good job of recruiting top talent that some German professors accuse the organization of pilfering the best out of academia, at the expense of German universities. Early in January, a group of German academicians, including Nobel Laureate Günter Blobel from Rockefeller University, in New York City, endorsed a letter that was published in the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung accusing MPS of being partly to blame for the fact that no German university was among a recent ranking of the top 50 universities in the world.
"There is a feeling that the Max Planck Institutes get, but the universities lose," says Walter Neupert, a chemist at the University of Munich, who endorsed the letter with his signature. Both Neupert and the letter's author, Widmar Tanner of the University of Regensburg, want to see the Max Planck Institutes integrate more with universities, so university students and faculty could benefit from interaction with the talent at the institutes and gain access to their exceptional infrastructure. They suggest MPS adopt a model similar to that of HHMI, which funds investigators who are physically situated in a university.
"If Max Planck Institutes were integrated into universities, it would add to the quality of the university environment," Neupert says. He adds that such integration would allow academic researchers to "see how good science is done and how to be competitive."
Gruss shot back at the academicians in a leading magazine, Der Spiegel, accusing them of short-sighted solutions to problems in Germany's academic landscape. Gruss says that to improve universities so that they achieve better international rankings, the universities themselves need to change. Gruss argues that changing an existing system that produces high-ranking science-MPS-would be self-destructive for German science in general.
"If the question is, 'Can universities recover by imitating the model of Max Planck?' then my answer is, 'Why not?' " Gruss says. "There is much to be learned from our decision structure, our recruiting procedures, and our internal quality control. However, if the question is, 'Can MPS become more efficient through integration in a university?' then my answer is a clear 'no.' "
The recent cross fire is just the latest chapter of a sometimes rocky relationship between German universities and MPS. Another recent issue centered on whether MPS should gain the power to award graduate degrees. Since Max Planck Institutes are purely research-focused, they must rely on nearby universities to get access to graduate student labor. So directors and senior scientists at the Max Planck Institutes become adjunct professors at local universities to access the graduate student pool.
Recently, the Max Planck Institute for Polymer Research, Mainz, tried setting up a new doctoral program. Although the graduate program is technically a joint project between the institute and the University of Mainz, many accused the institute of inching its way onto university turf, toward the goal of graduating doctoral students themselves—a power that universities are not eager to give up. Gruss says the kerfuffle was a misunderstanding, because "MPS doesn't want the right to give a Ph.D." But the issue is still a sore topic for many academic researchers.
Despite its ability to draft scientists from far and wide, the society doesn't always successfully recruit or retain them. A third of its directors are foreigners, and the fact that Germany is not an Anglo-Saxon country makes it hard for non-German-speaking spouses to find satisfying work. Although they receive millions for research, directors' salaries are comparatively low because they are tied to public funding. Some directors say they could triple their salary by going to the U.S. but that the exceptional work environment at the Max Planck Institutes more than makes up for the difference in pay.
"If I only wanted to make money I would have done something entirely different," says Hajo Freund, a director at the Fritz Haber Max Planck Institute.
Another challenge is that new directors are often saddled with permanent institute employees hired by their predecessors. "When a director retires, you can't take a magic wand and annihilate the institute and its employees," says Meinrat O. Andreae of the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry, Mainz. "It's not like the ancient Egyptians who buried the staff with the pharaoh."
Staff scientists faced with a new director's research direction can have a tough time picking up radically new skills. "At 50, I'm not sure I can start from scratch, or if I want to," one such employee tells C&EN. One compromise for the employees in this sort of bind is to move into administrative roles—such as organizing continuing education programs for graduate students.
And although the flush operating funds are given to directors with no strings attached, there is some quality control. Every two to three years there's an international panel of researchers that comes to the institute and evaluates the research done and the planned experiments.
Another evaluation metric the society is starting to use is the h index—an index that characterizes the scientific output of a researcher. In particular, MPS measures the rate of change of an institute's h index—that is, the rate of change of the institute's impact, as measured by citations.
If a director's impact is not up to par, or if he or she is not responding to reviewers' suggestions, MPS has a single disciplinary tool against directors. At six-year intervals, Gruss has the ability to increase or decrease the budget of a director by 25%. Although most directors say they've never heard of a cut being implemented, Gruss says, "I have indeed had to take measures."
"It's a high-trust funding system," Gruss explains. "We give the directors, ahead of time, the money to do the most risky types of experiments, and then we evaluate them retrospectively."
Similarly, the society's experiment on Floridian soil is a risk that certainly will be evaluated in retrospect. Although some MPS directors support the international expansion, others worry that the American institute could fail to raise enough money, thereby saddling MPS with its operation costs and starving the rest of the institutes of cash.
So far, MPS has a reasonable track record with investments abroad. The society has already successfully set up several institutes outside of Germany. There are two Max Planck Institutes focused on art in Italy and there's a linguistics institute in the Netherlands. But a more recent collaboration between MPS and the Chinese Academy of Sciences to set up a joint computational biology institute in Shanghai has suffered some administration problems.
Gruss remains optimistic about the American institute, arguing it will be entirely under the governance of MPS and therefore administered as smoothly as are those institutes on home turf.
At least one of the new MPS institute's neighbors-to-be is also enthusiastic. Nobel Prize winner Harry Kroto, who is located at Florida State University and who sits on the Board of Governors for the society's latest foreign outpost, says that "the new Max Planck Institute and Scripps Florida could be the seeds for a new region of great discovery—like a new Silicon Valley for biotechnology. It's an exciting development."
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