The Max F. Perutz Laboratories - or How to Make a Successful Research Unit and the World a More Exciting Place

bridges vol. 9, April 2006 / Institutions & Organizations
by Caroline Adenberger and Irene Eckart

When telling someone a story, it is always a good idea to start from the beginning. In the case of the Max F. Perutz Laboratories (MFPL) in Vienna, the story doesn't just begin with their establishment in Spring 2005, but with the person whose name they carry: Max F. Perutz, a chemist who was born in 1914 in Austria and won the 1962 Nobel Prize in chemistry. The question is whether Perutz' achievements in molecular biology - undeniably remarkable - are the only reason for the Laboratories' name. There appear to be further similarities between Perutz and the laboratories that bear his name, such as a certain way of doing things . . .

{access view=guest}Access to the full article is free, but requires you to register. Registration is simple and quick - all we need is your name and a valid e-mail address. We appreciate your interest in bridges.{/access} {access view=!guest} In an article, Perutz recounts an anecdote about a Soviet delegation's visit to Cambridge on a summer day in the late '50s. When asked to show them the "Institute of Molecular Biology," he took them to his shabby prefabricated hut in front of the University Physics Department, called Cavendish Laboratory. Apart from its first concern "And where do you work in winter?", the delegation wanted to know how he had planned his successful Research Unit, probably imagining that he had recruited an interdisciplinary team as Noah had chosen the animals for his ark. "They were disappointed that the Unit had grown haphazardly and that I left people to do what happened to interest them," Perutz concludes his anecdote.

mfpl_building_captionThe MFPL, as a joint venture of the University of Vienna and the Medical University of Vienna, also represents a new and innovative approach to strengthening research and training at the university. And just like Max F. Perutz' leaving people to do whatever happened to interest them, this new form of inter-university cooperation is supposed to be a fertile ground for new developments in many areas of molecular life sciences.The MFPL is pooling the expertise of more than 50 research groups. They have a strong focus on the promotion of young scientists and close cooperation across the campus and with other research institutes as well as companies.

One has to abandon the idea of a shabby hut, however: Embedded in the Campus Vienna Biocenter, a unique concentration of high-level research in the field of molecular biotechnology, MFPL comes across as a perfect environment for excellent research.

The following is an interview with Harald Hochreiter, the Administrative Director/CEO of the MFPL, who follows Max F. Perutz' vision of making the world a better and more exciting place:

bridges: Can you explain in layman's terms what the MFPL is doing?

Hochreiter_Harald_048_captiHarald Hochreiter: "In dry legal terms (speaking techno babble), I would say: The University of Vienna and the Medical University of Vienna created a new organizational and financial structure to professionalize and improve the conditions for research and training in Molecular Biology. With a little more verve I would put it this way: We want to show with the Max F. Perutz Laboratories that a new way of doing things is possible at the university, in Austria, and today - opening minds, planting new ideas, creating opportunities."

bridges: What would be different if the MFPL didn't exist?

Harald Hochreiter: "The world would be a less exciting place?"

bridges: When did you start at the MFPL? What is your professional background and what made you decide to assume the position of administrative director at the MFPL?

Harald Hochreiter: "The MFPL started in the minds of a few people here more than three years ago and over time gained enough momentum that the rectors gave the "go ahead" in March 2005. I was appointed as administrative director soon after the official start."

My own professional career started in research - at the Vienna University of Economics and Business Administration. But when I was about to move to Germany to get my Ph.D., I realized that I would rather do something else. So I bought a one-way ticket to Madagascar and traveled for one-and-a-half years through Africa and Asia. You could say that the motive behind it was similar to pursuing a research interest: the wish to discover new territory and explore unknown horizons.

When I returned to Austria, I was attracted to the newly established Kplus competence center program. I worked in the Kplus management for some years until I was appointed director of Technologie Impulse Gesellschaft (TIG) to accompany the merger of TIG into the Forschungsförderungsgesellschaft (FFG, Research promotion company).

Early in 2005, when I was offered the opportunity to apply my experience to the newly founded MFPL, I could not resist. Having seen how new financial and organizational approaches can change the pace and the rhythm of cooperations between science and industry, I saw a great challenge in trying to put my ideas into practice in a new framework. So far it hasn't always been easy but it's definitely great fun and very much worth it!"

bridges: What is the annual budget of the MFPL? From which sources does the MFPL receive funding and how are these (funds) appropriated?

Harald Hochreiter: "The annual budget of MFPL is about €30 million. About 60 percent of this volume is part of the university budget; about 40 percent is acquired through competitive grants (mainly FWF, EU, WWTF, GEN-AU, and to a lesser extent money from industry). Acquiring 40 percent third-party funding puts us in the top league among Austrian research organizations - and for a university-based research institute, I consider that pretty competitive on an international level as well."

bridges: The MFPL has been seeking its first scientific director. The closing date for applications was November 15, 2005. How far has the selection process advanced?

Harald Hochreiter: "We have just invited a number of excellent candidates to come to Vienna in April and we will know soon after who will be the no. 1. The strong response to our search activities shows that Vienna - especially the Campus Vienna Biocenter (VBC) - has become a very competitive research environment. Don't forget that MFPL is part of a research cluster with other institutions like the IMP, IMBA, GMI, and companies like Intercell - altogether we have more than 1100 active researchers at the VBC. This cluster is definitely an asset - for Ph.D. students as well as for our new Scientific Director."

scientist_micro_captionbridges: Women are well represented on all levels of scientific groups at the MFPL. One of the doctoral students, Irene Maier, has recently been granted the prestigious UNESCO - L'OREAL scholarship for women in science. How do you encourage and support women's representation at your institution?

Harald Hochreiter: "You're right - MFPL has a better representation of women than the typical Austrian research institute. But still the ratio of women drops from more than 50 percent on the graduate level to less than 10 percent at the level of departmental chairs (25 percent if you count all group leaders). So the situation is far from perfect."

There are many excellent researchers like Irene - but too many leave research. We try to support women with small things like establishing child care from early stages on up. But personally I think that it is more important that women create their own networks and support each other in an often passive, historically male-dominated environment.

Successful women like Andrea Barta and Renée Schroeder do have a point when they say that, even when women have established an international reputation, their representation in the university structures hardly reflects their scientific contributions."

bridges: What is the MFPL doing for communicating science to the general public?

Harald Hochreiter: "Last autumn, MFPL participated in the first "Long Night of Research" which was a huge success - visitors to the campus could talk to Barry Dickson about his experiments with fruit flies or extract DNA from tomatoes. This summer, lecturers from MFPL will take part in the "Kinder-Uni," to give another example.

Our advantage is that MFPL can draw on the long-standing experience of people like Tim Skern or Karl Kuchler who were among the pioneers in communicating science to a wider public with the initiative "Dialog Gentechnik."

bridges: In your opinion, what is particularly important about the working environment for scientists?

Harald Hochreiter: "There are the obvious factors: the need for good infrastructures, flat hierarchies and intellectual freedom. Being able to exchange ideas on the way to the cafeteria and having diversity around you to get in contact with new, unconventional ideas. And of course a pool of young and motivated students that want to become active in science.

I would add two more factors: First, a professional research management that limits the amount of unproductive distractions from science. I'm thinking of activities that seem to be essential for the emotional well-being but have a tendency to escalate, such as faculty involvement in deciding the color of the new Web site.And, even more important, I see the need for an environment where allocation of resources is based on performance and not on hierarchy or age. One of the main weaknesses of the Austrian university system is that people get frustrated when access to money, space, and infrastructure is unrelated to individual performance"

bridges: How does the MFPL promote young scientists in general? Are there currently any job openings for young researchers?

Harald Hochreiter: "There are regular job openings for Ph.D. students and postdocs and we see that our graduate students have excellent international prospects. But what concerns us is that we have few options for junior professors at the moment. We are just starting a career development program for our postdocs and young group leaders, which will establish career paths for future group leaders and staff scientists. We have been very actively promoting the establishment of funding programs that would allow young group leaders to concentrate on their research for five to seven years. I am positive that we will be able to start a number of junior groups within the next two years. Last, but not least, we will start to fill a number of vacant professorships later this year."

bridges: What is your long-term vision for the future of the MFPL?

Harald Hochreiter: "My vision is that in five years MFPL will be known as one of the three hot spots in molecular biology in Europe and in 10 years we will have established our name as the source of some substantial scientific breakthroughs. And, on the sidelines, we'll have demonstrated the benefits of modern research management."{/access}