Most people think the major royal event of the week in England is a small wedding tomorrow, but plant biologists might disagree. Yesterday, the Queen, resplendent in a blue outfit that naturally included a matching hat, visited Cambridge to open the Sainsbury Laboratory, a research facility within the ground of the Cambridge University Botanic Garden that will eventually house 120 scientists researching plant growth and development. Andrew Sugden, Science's international managing editor, didn't swing an invite to Westminster Abbey for the royal nuptials but he was at the festivities yesterday and files this inside look:
An hour ahead of the royal party's scheduled arrival, some 200 guests, including local high school biology students and academics from the University of Cambridge and other regional plant science facilities, assembled. Amid tight but unobtrusive security, the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh arrived at 11:05 a.m., to be greeted by the University's Vice-Chancellor Leszek Borysiewicz, who in turn introduced the royal party to the new director and associate director of the laboratory, Elliot Meyerowitz and Ottoline Leyser, who conducted a tour of the new facility. In a short speech, Borysiewicz acknowledged the Duke of Edinburgh's 32 years as chancellor of the university, a post from which he retires this summer having reached the age of 90. David Sainsbury, a member of the House of Lords, former minister for science in the Blair government, and the key financial backer of the £82 million facility via the Gatsby Charitable Foundation, next paid tribute to those who had translated the vision of the new laboratory into reality. The Queen then unveiled the plaque to open the building officially.
After the departure of the royal party, the afternoon was given over to a short symposium on the future of plant sciences, featuring talks from heads of key plant science research centers in the east of England (including the already-established Sainsbury Laboratory in Norwich, which focuses on research into plant-microbe interactions). Meyerowitz, the leading plant developmental biologist who has migrated from the California Institute of Technology to become the inaugural director of the new Cambridge facility, outlined its principal research focus: the combination of experimental and computational approaches to plant growth and development, leading to predictive models of plant growth. All speakers emphasized the key role of plant science in meeting humanity's challenges for the 21st century. With the addition of the new Sainsbury Laboratory, the region can now lay reasonable claim to being a comprehensive, world-class center for the plant sciences, spanning basic and applied research and its communication to growers and policymakers.
The new building will have another significant role, firmly linking it to the history of the plant science in Cambridge. The university's herbarium, which amongst its specimens hosts Charles Darwin's plant collections from the Beagle voyage, is to be transferred from its existing home in the university plant sciences department to the Sainsbury Laboratory later in 2011.
Most scientists will not have had the curious experience of touring a brand-new and largely still empty research institute. The sense of space and promise in the new Sainsbury Laboratory is palpable. Light floods into the airy labs from vaulted skylights above—a pleasing contrast to the standard low-ceiling, stuffy facilities that have been the standard issue of past decades. Work to populate the lab benches of the has begun. The Gatsby Charitable Foundation, which has funded the building and the operation of the new lab, aims to allow researchers freedom to follow their nose and to let their imagination flourish, a philosophy that will surely be facilitated by this remarkable building in its contemplative setting.