WOODS HOLE – Dr. Kenneth H. Foreman, the Marine Biological Laboratory’s director of the Semester in Environmental Science, has a personal perspective on the possible affiliation between the MBL and the University of Chicago.
“Potentially it’s a really good fit,” Foreman said.
Foreman grew up in the Chicago area and his first job was as a research technician in the Department of Pathology at the University of Chicago. “It’s a great institution and obviously they’re in the middle of the country and they don’t really have a marine science program,” he said.
A critical vote on the affiliation is scheduled for this Saturday, June 1, at a closed meeting on the MBL campus in Woods Hole.
The approximately 500 scientists who, as the MBL Corporation, control the venerable lab in Woods Hole, will vote next Saturday on whether to give up that control and affiliate with the University.
“From MBL’s perspective, essentially it is for stabilizing our financial situation in a soft money environment,” Foreman said.
His wife, Dr. Anne E. Giblin, a senior scientist in MBL’s Ecosystems Center, said the weak economy over the last several years has affected science organizations. There are examples of other labs being taken over by universities and small labs closing entirely.
MBL officials would not comment on the affiliation other than to issue a short statement.
Andrea Early, MBL spokesman, stated, “The Marine Biological Laboratory and the University of Chicago continue in discussions that could result in the MBL becoming an affiliate of the University. Those talks are moving forward because an affiliation based on shared history and shared scientific interests could benefit research and educational programs at both institutions. The next step in this process requires a vote by MBL Corporation Members, which will take place on June 1, 2013, at a closed meeting.”
She added that the vote “is one among several steps in a larger process needed to affect the affiliation.”
The MBL is a private non-profit that is the oldest private marine laboratory in the western hemisphere and bills itself as an international center for research, education and training in biology, biomedicine and ecology.
It has been known since its founding in 1888 as a place where scores of scientists gather in the summer for the collegial experience of sharing ideas and research. Among those scientists have been 55 Nobel Laureates.
Hosting all those scientists in the summer, and supporting all that space with fewer people year-round is expensive.
Giblin said the summer program is “very, very strong, but financially it’s not contributing much.”
Foreman pointed out that in order to have the big seasonal presence, in which a national convocation of scientists converge on the MBL, means for nine months, the lab is not using all of its assets in a very productive way.
“That costs something,” Foreman said. “the facilities and staff are underutilized. In order to be sustained we have to link up with something larger.”
Giblin said that UChicago would bring a whole new dimension to the MBL, including winter courses.
“Those of us who are year-round scientists just want to see this whole thing resolved and some stabilization,” she said.
For the scientists who are year-round at the MBL, like Foreman and Giblin, the UChicago has been the buzz in Woods Hole for eight months. But for some of the summer scientists who will be coming for Saturday’s meeting to vote on the issue, letters last week from MBL’s President and Director Dr. Joan V. Ruderman and University of Chicago’s president Robert J. Zimmer, may have caused some raised eyebrows.
The letters stipulated that the meeting would be for the purpose of taking one vote on changing the MBL’s bylaws, substituting the University of Chicago for the MBL’s 436 Corporation members as the sole member of the Corporation.
One major result of an affiliation with University of Chicago is that control by the scientists would go away. But how important is that control?
“We’re all giving up ownership of MBL,” Foreman said. But he said he has spent some time thinking about what exactly he would be giving up.
“Exactly how much control do I really have as a Corporation member,” he asked rhetorically. “Frankly not much. I don’t think I’m giving up that much and I’m getting a great deal.”
Foreman said that the MBL’s structure where hundreds of scientists are Corporation members and technically in control as owners is distinct.
As Foreman described it, essentially a group of scientists in 1888 said, ‘let’s form a marine lab and we’ll be the owners of it.’
Beginning in the 1960s, there was more and more growth of year-round programs at the MBL.
The MBL has for many years had affiliations with universities so that students could get credit for coursework at the lab.
The MBL had an affiliation with Boston University for 30 years and now there is an affiliation with Brown University on a program for graduate students which, Foreman said, will likely stay in place even if the University of Chicago deal goes through.
Foreman’s students in the Semester in Environmental Science program, which began in 1997, are undergraduates from 57 colleges all across the country, mostly small liberal arts colleges, he said.
MBL is not a degree granting entity, but its affiliation with those schools means the students—15 to 20 per semester–get course credit for the work they do at MBL.
Giblin said she hopes the administration has performed enough educational outreach to out-of-town scientists about the importance of the vote and the reasons for it, because she believes the year-rounders are comfortable with the idea of the affiliation.
“We’ve had layoffs. Everybody who is year round thinks this will provide stability. Frankly I don’t see a lot of alternatives,” she said.
As for Saturday’s vote, Giblin said, “It’s going to be interesting to see what happens.”
— Laura M. Reckford