After the historic vote Saturday in which Marine Biological Laboratory scientists in Woods Hole agreed to align with the University of Chicago, Dr. Jane Maienschein, an MBL historian, saw parallels going back 100 years.
“This is a very historically interesting choice. It’s historically significant,” she said.
The Marine Biological Laboratory is 125 years old this year. And the MBL’s affiliation with Chicago goes back almost that long, 121 years when MBL’s first director, Charles Otis Whitman was on the faculty at the newly formed UChicago.
Maienschein explained, “What’s probably most interesting is that at various times over the last 100 years, there have been talks about affiliating with a university, but people wanted independence. . . . As far back as 100 years ago, University of Chicago was brought up,” she said.
Maienschein said she knows about those talks from letters in the achival collections of MBL and UChicago..
“It was very informal. Informal discussions and a handshake,” she said.
The informal affiliation continued because MBL’s second director, F.R. Lillie, along with many other scientists and graduate students over the years, were also with UChicago, Maienschein said.
“It seemed like a natural affiliation,” she said.
Maienschein is a historian of science, and at MBL she is directing a history project to build a digital archive about the organization using oral histories, photos, film and old documents. She will be working on the history project this summer with graduate students from Arizona, Dartmouth and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
She is also a Director of the Center for Biology and Society at Arizona State University. and an adjunct scientist at MBL.
The significance of the affiliation with UChicago, according to Maienschein, goes beyond the historic echos.
With regard to money, the change, she said, is “huge.”
“Science has always been expensive, but it’s had its patrons,” she said.
For a number of decades when Lillie was director, his wealthy father-in-law Charles Crane would write a check at the end of the year and paid off the MBL’s debts, Maienschein said.
The economy these days has resulted in a challenging environment for funding and grants.
There are two huge advantages with UChicago, money and size, Maienschein said.
Maienschein did not want to comment on the amounts of money UChicago will bring but other scientists said figures that have been quoted by officials are $5 million right away and maybe 10 times that—$50 million—over the next few years in terms of facilities and staff and scientists to work in Woods Hole on the UChicago program.
“That magnitude of money makes it possible for scientists to continue doing their work,” without worrying that their grants will run out, Maienschein said.
The money, she said, will also serve as a “bridge” so that scientists working in between grants can continue to move forward on their work.
The University of Chicago’s large size is also very important, she said. “It gives the MBL more flexibility and more bargaining power.”
The MBL’s website states that it has an endowment of $64 million, but Maienschein said that endowments can be tricky because a lot of the money is marked for specific purposes.
So with the large influx of money, “It’s going to matter because it’s going to make the day-to-day operations very smooth and it will make it possible to dream again. To dream of big ideas and have something to work with, not just to pay the bills..”
The money she said, will allow MBL scientists to “look ahead and plan and think strategically, not just reacting to the moment.”
Maienschein said year-round scientists at the MBL are the ones who saw what MBL President and Director Joan V. Ruderman has called a “dire” financial situation most strikingly.
“In the last year, it’s sort of gotten worse and worse,” she said. For them, the UChicago affiliation “takes away the uncertainty. Chicago is a sort of rock solid anchor institution.”
Being part of last Saturday’s special meeting in Woods Hole with the 160 members of MBL’s Corporation to vote on the affiliation “felt sort of thrilling,” Maienschein said. “It was so clearly a good decision.”
When it came time to vote, MBL officials asked everyone in favor of the affiliation to stand up. The vote was 158 in favor, 2 opposed.
“To see everyone in the room standing up, and feeling that, yes, this is a great opportunity and this is going to secure science, I felt so happy,” she said.
MBL’s signature program comes in the summer when scientists from all over converge on Woods Hole for work and collegial inspiration.
But the problem with the summer program is it is expensive to the institution, Maienschein said.
The scientists who come in the summer and the courses that go on, “make MBL totally unique,” she said.
According to MBL’s website, the summer program “attracts 1,000 scientists and advanced students from 200 institutions making MBL the largest biological laboratory in the world.”
About 100,000 students have attended the courses over the years since the institution began in 1888, Maienschein said. Those students have then returned to their homes, bringing the knowledge gained from MBL all over the country and the world.
As an example, Maienschein said that among MBL’s “summer investigators” in the 1920s were a pair of graduate students from China who returned to their country and set up modern biology labs in China.
The scientists who come for the summer pay for their lab and library space, often through grants but the money mostly goes to their home institution. They pay a relatively small fee to the MBL, Maienschein said, but the MBL needs to maintain the lab space year-round.
“What the lab would have had to do if Chicago wasn’t here to help was to radically increase the cost on summer scientists. It would have made it very hard for younger scientists or people in areas not as lucrative to come,” she said.
UChicago officials have said they will bring year-round programs and students to Woods Hole.
“This allows the labs to be used more fully and the cost is spread out. It’s utilizing the resources so much better,” she said.
– Laura M. Reckford