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Lab weds creativity with practicality in collaborative atmosphere

Oct. 1, 2004
Charleston Post and Courier
By Daniel Conover
Set aside the high-tech stuff and the truth comes clear: The Hollings Marine Laboratory doesn't just run experiments, it is an experiment.

Twenty-first century scientists come in three flavors: academic, with goals shaped by the demands of tenure and grant funding; government, where career advancement relies on the ability to adapt to a mission; and private sector, in which the value of research programs is set by the market.

Combining these distinct cultures in one container -- under pressure -- is a lot like mixing three unstable chemical compounds in a test tube: Sure, it might produce a burst of energy, but there's a real risk that the whole thing could just blow up.

This is where HML Director Fred Holland comes in. An energetic biologist who built a successful career in private-sector research and development, Holland returned to South Carolina to work for the state. His understanding of private-sector risk management and government accountability made him a great candidate for the federal HML job, yet he still had a lot to learn about academics.

"I really had developed a personal opinion that people who worked in academia had it made, that they didn't work really hard," Holland said. "But when I would come in here to work on something after midnight, I'd find the academic scientists in the lab."

The stereotype of the relaxed academic comes from an old scholarly tradition, the idea that productive curiosity is best inspired by "a benevolent indolence." How can a brilliant mind see exciting opportunities if the scientist's nose is always to the grindstone?

Government science takes a different tack: If you can't justify a line of study through its practical uses, you don't spend taxpayer money on it.

HML intentionally hovers somewhere between those two extremes.

In concept, the joint lab is an attempt to marry creativity and practicality.

From a management perspective, the key to making it all work is finding the right approach to risk-tolerance, said Richard Spinrad, a NOAA research administrator from Washington. He requires his managers to demonstrate some level of risk and failure in their research, a hedge against the natural tendency of bureaucracies to avoid criticism by sandbagging.

Gregory Warr of MUSC, a Cambridge-educated biologist and one of HML's two lead investigators in marine genomics, agrees that scientists should be "slightly underemployed." But he sees value in a partnership with mission-oriented government scientists. "The new thing is accountability."

One reason things are working now is that everyone at HML has a built-in incentive to get along: There is no way they could afford the same research elsewhere. Meanwhile, the intimate confines of HML are producing their own culture, a hybrid that Warr credits to different perspectives, a shared fascination for science and a collaborative atmosphere that filters down from Holland.

"In a huge institution like a university, it's possible to carve out a little niche for yourself," Warr said. "HML is too small for that. I think everyone went in there with the sense that we all had to work together or we'd all go down together. It's been a wonderful catalyst for collegiality."
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