What Can Business Learn From The World's Best Research Institutes?

Joost Minnaar
Written by Joost Minnaar August 24, 2019

Plenty! Doing science and doing business might seem worlds apart. But just as scientists draw inspiration from how the world’s best do business, companies can also learn from how the world’s best do science.

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Sketch by MLVDW

Two inspiring leaders in science make this point. They are Max Perutz, a Nobel Prize winner, and Geoffrey West, a visionary theoretical physicist. Both ran highly successful institutes, and illustrate our point.

Connected by ideology

West tells how he learned from Perutz in his book ‘Scale – the universal laws of life, growth, and death in organisms, cities, and companies‘.

“When I became president of the Santa Fe Institute I came across some words of wisdom that strongly resonated with me from a man who helped found and run an extraordinarily successful institute more than fifty years earlier.”

This man, Max Perutz, was a Nobel Prize winner in chemistry for discovering the structure of haemoglobin and myoglobin. He also founded and chaired one of the most successful institutes in science, the Medical Research Council Unit (MRCU) at Cambridge.

West explains: “Under Perutz’s guidance, the MRCU produced, in just a few short years, no fewer than nine Nobel prizes, one of which was the famous discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA by James Watson and Francis Crick.”

Doing science and doing business might seem worlds apart. But just as scientists draw inspiration from how the world’s best do business, companies can also learn from how the world’s best do science.
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The secrets of Perutz

What were the secrets of Perutz and this extraordinary success? Did he discover some magic formula for conducting research?

West tells us that Perutz gave his researchers far-reaching autonomy and independence, while treating everyone in the institute equally. This sounds very much like the leaders of the 100+ progressive firms we have visited and studied around the world.

Indeed, Perutz’s views about intrinsic equality were so strong that he turned down a knighthood. Why? He was convinced that this status symbol would separate him from his colleagues. Meanwhile, he continued to join other researchers for coffee, tea and lunch.

And Perutz had simple guidelines in place to make sure his institute ran smoothly. “No politics, no committees, no reports, no referees, no interviews: just gifted, highly motivated people picked by a few people of good judgement.”

What Can Business Learn From The World's Best Research Institutes?
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Great minds think alike

West was inspired by Perutz to run the Santa Fe Institute in a similar way: “Find the best people, trust them, give them support, don’t hamper them with bullshit … and good things will happen.”

This is easier said than done. But it is a refreshing approach—and one business can learn heaps from.

As West concludes: “Aspiring to such lofty ideals, and trying to create a spirit and culture where the development of ideals and the search for knowledge are unencumbered by the hegemony of quarterly reports, continual proposal writing and oversight committees, political intrigue and petty bureaucracy should supersede all other considerations.”

Amen to that!

Written by Joost Minnaar
Joost Minnaar
Co-founder Corporate Rebels. My daily focus is on research, writing, and anything else related to making work more fun.
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