Winner praises Nobel-laureate factory's culture

October 15, 2009

The 14th Nobel prize for a scientist based at a famous British laboratory has been hailed as proof of the benefits of cultivating a culture that fosters curiosity-driven research.

The Medical Research Council's Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB) in Cambridge is regarded as something of a Nobel-laureate factory, having turned out 13 former winners, including Francis Crick and James Watson, who won the accolade for their discovery of DNA's double-helix structure in 1953.

The latest winner, structural biologist Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, shared the 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry with an American and an Israeli "for studies of the structure and function of the ribosome".

Dr Ramakrishnan, known to colleagues as "Venki", was born in India but is now a US citizen. In 1999, he moved to the LMB from the University of Utah. He credits both organisations with supporting his prize-winning work.

In the traditional telephone interview with the Nobel Foundation after the announcement, he praised the culture of the LMB and its "ability to tackle difficult problems in a stable and supportive environment".

He said: "The history of the place means you don't waste your time doing mundane or routine things."

The lab, which conducts basic research, has a history of protecting researchers' freedom to explore.

But Don Braben, honorary professor in the department of earth sciences at University College London and author of Scientific Freedom: The Elixir of Civilization, cautioned that while the LMB was "once a model for excellence, its freedom is not as secure as it was".

He said: "Researchers are now increasingly obliged to take national benefit into account when formulating proposals. Luckily, Venki's interests were well established when he joined the lab. Let's hope that his successors have the freedom he had to develop unfashionable ideas."

Nick Dusic, director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, said: "The LMB has been able to foster talented people throughout its history. We need to keep places and space for talented scientists who push the bounds of their fields."

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