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Comment: Is the lab ready yet?

Copenhagen needs world-class science facilities if it is to compete and attract talent, says international physicist. And it needs a streamlined and agile way of creating and modifying them

There has recently been debate about transferring building ownership to Danish universities in the press. As my name has been mentioned in connection with the University of Copenhagen, I can perhaps add my thoughts within the domain of my expertise: I’m not an expert in the SEA system [See fact box right, ed.] but I do know about science buildings. And from personal experience, I know the importance of research facilities for international faculty recruiting.

From years spent at Stanford and Harvard, I am used to interacting directly and easily with all the decision makers involved in research facilities. To be competitive, it is necessary to be responsive to new research frontiers and hiring opportunities. This means being able to refurbish a lab for a new hire in under half a year, and to create new facilities, and even new buildings, as needs arise.

The latter was done at Harvard through an internal process controlled by the Dean, Provost and President, resulting in an efficient process to build a new Nanoscience Research Facility. The situation at Stanford was similar: as needs arose buildings were planned and built, based on an internal process in close collaboration with the scientists.

At least in my experience, close connection between end users and decision makers was critically important from early concept to moving in. Anything that hampered that process was a disadvantage.

Any researcher the university wishes to hire will ask “when will the lab be ready”, and unsure answers won’t do. High-performance facilities are a major recruiting tool, and these days labs are customized for the user.

This can be expensive but there’s no alternative, except, I suppose, to choose not to be competitive with universities who are doing this. If the university wants to hire people who have choices, it must offer state of the art. To accomplish this, new labs or new buildings require efficient and frequent dialogue between scientists, architects, contractors and owners. Handing off information doesn’t work; the process must be intimately connected all the way along. Any system that creates distance between the scientist and the planners, preventing iterative dialog at every step carries a large risk.

In the press, it has several times been mentioned that I came to Copenhagen because of the new Niels Bohr Building. My interest in Copenhagen was, and still is, that the University of Copenhagen, and this city, can be a leading international location for the development of modern quantum science, continuing the great legacy of Niels Bohr.

Did the plan for a new building and facilities affect my decision to come to Denmark? Yes, it did, combined with generous funding from Danmarks Grundforskningsfond, and a professorship sponsored by the Villum Foundation. Add to this an admirable hiring plan within the Niels Bohr Institute, as well as commitments and general support from the University of Copenhagen, convinced me that it was worth going for.

Going forward, how can the University of Copenhagen continue to develop and enhance excellent research facilities and compete in the international market for the best researchers, teachers, and students?

Based on personal experience, the scheme that offers the most streamlined and agile response in creating and modifying buildings, the scheme that is able to respond quickly to hiring opportunities or emerging research areas, and which allows easy communication between users, designers, builders, and owners, is the preferred way.

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