Building a modern research center
When LMU‘s new Biomedical Center is officially opened at the end of October, the first chapter in its history will close. Molecular biologist Peter Becker looks back on 15 years as coordinator of the project.
Are you ready to breathe a sigh of relief?
Peter Becker: The State Construction Office handed over the keys about three months ago, but the fittings and the relocation of the research groups are not yet complete. There is still plenty of work to be done. We have to get everything up and running, we need to organize our operational procedures in detail. When you move into a new building of this size and complexity, you can never be sure, no matter how good the planning, that everything will run smoothly from the word go. The BMC is the biggest research building erected in Germany in recent years. We have had a few mishaps, such as a water leakage that has delayed full operability of the Animal Facility. My own department was the first really big unit to move in, in July, and since then others have followed. We are the pioneers who have tried things out – and continue to do so.
The biggest research building erected in recent years? What is it intended to achieve?
Eight large units, each with its own strengths, primarily in preclinical research, will be domiciled in the Biomedical Center (BMC): the Departments of Biochemistry, Molecular Biology, Physiology and Cell Biology, the Institutes for Immunology and Clinical Neuroimmunology as well as the Walter Brendel Center for Experimental Medicine. An earlier designation, ‘the Center for Applied Cell Research’, captures our research orientation quite well. We want to understand the plasticity of cellular programs that mediate and control genome function and the repair of cell damage, dynamic structural changes in the cell nucleus and elements of the cytoskeleton, and the maintenance of stem cells and cell differentiation in general. These quite fundamental topics are complemented by programs devoted to neurodegeneration, neurogenesis, neuronal regeneration, immunity and immunological tolerance as well as parts of vascular physiology. In all, some 60 research groups are moving into the BMC. We see ourselves as an international Center of Excellence. Three of us have won the DFG’s Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize, six of our group leaders have received grants from the European Research Council (ERC), three others head Emmy Noether Junior Research groups. And three of us serve as Spokespersons for DFG Collaborative Research Groups.
Can you say something about the logistics involved?
Let me give you an idea of the scale of the operation. Around 500 people are being relocated. About three-quarters of them are researchers who need fully equipped laboratories and often delicate scientific instruments. Much of this equipment has to be purchased. We have bought 800 new freezers to increase energy efficiency. We need around 1500 new items of equipment in all, including sterile cabinets, large centrifuges and incubators, which have been installed in the past few weeks. The Scientific Coordinator of the BMC is Dr. Jörn Böke, who for the past 2 or 3 years has been involved with all aspects of the building work and the operation of the Center, and knows the location of every electrical outlet. He is also organizing the move, which is a complex undertaking, since it involves groups now dispersed at four different sites.
The BMC can already look back on a long history. The initial plans date back to the mid-1990s. Is that the norm for a research center of this sort?
Not really. But perhaps the sheer dimensions of the project help explain the delay. When I was appointed in 1999, there was a first proposal prepared under the leadership of the LMU and the Medical Faculty, which envisaged the concentration of biomedical research on the Martinsried/Grosshadern Campus. And it was clear that our quarters in the city center were in need of renovation, and could not be extended. In the years that followed, many plans were formulated, but the financial resources needed to implement them simply weren’t there.
What finally changed that?
The Bavarian State Government under Edmund Stoiber set up the Aufbruch 2020 program, which included the provision of many hundreds of millions of euros for education and science. By then, our plans were sufficiently mature to ensure that the BMC was near the top of the pile of worthy projects. The Bavarian Government then gave us the go-ahead – provided we succeeded in acquiring additional funding from the Federal Government. Previously, the Federal Government and the Länder had automatically contributed 50:50 to the cost of university building projects. But by that time federal funding was available only if the project was judged to be of nationwide significance. The BMC was the subject of the first Bavarian application of this kind, which was successful.
But that wasn’t the end of the matter …
By the time the application was granted in 2009, Federal programs designed to stimulate economic growth had driven up the cost of public works by so much that the money would cover the cost of only two of the planned three buildings, and construction of the third had to be postponed. So we had to do another rethink and ask our disappointed colleagues to be patient. It was a very painful process.
And when can we expect the second phase of construction?
That depends on when we feel that we have a good chance of obtaining the necessary funding. Once the funds are available, construction can get underway, because the plans are already on the table, or rather on the ground: One of the new buildings will serve as the blueprint.
The BMC also includes a set of so-called core facilities.
Yes, we have five core facilities devoted to Bioimaging, Bioinformatics, Protein Analysis, Biophysics and Flow Cytometry. A Central Laboratory for Protein Analysis has been in operation in my Department for a long time, and it serves as a model for the other central facilities.
Are the core facilities be equipped with advanced instrumentation that would be too expensive for an individual department?
Yes. In the past it was possible for the large medical departments to organize their research on their own. But in the modern research landscape that is no longer feasible. We are all dependent on a highly diversified array of methods, and we need a whole variety of complex high-tech instrumentation that no single department could afford. Instruments like modern high-performance microscopes can easily cost a million euros apiece. So the funding available for large-scale apparatus will be used solely for these centralized core facilities which are used by all.
Is the prospect of working in a brand new building an advantage in terms of the recruitment of new faculty?
Without a doubt! Two of our new colleagues decided to come specifically because they could move into state-of-the-art labs. Up to now, the working environment on offer could not really act as a magnet for top-class researchers. And while the new building doesn’t provide any more space than before, the space available is of significantly higher quality. It has also aroused a great deal of interest among gifted young researchers from abroad who hope to obtain an Emmy Noether Fellowship from the DFG or an ERC Starting Grant, and would like to carry out their projects at the BMC. We receive a steady stream of inquiries, and we will no doubt to able to offer a new home to particularly distinguished junior research groups.
Interviewer: Martin Thurau
Prof. Dr. Peter Becker holds the Chair of Molecular Biology at LMU’s new Biomedical Center.