Last week I went on a short tour of the Francis Crick Institute construction site. The Crick is a new research institute due to open in 2015, and will be formed out of two existing institutes in London plus three University partners. The tours are available for staff at the two constituent institutes so that we can get an idea of the project’s progress and get some feeling for the new building. It is still early days but it is starting to look more like a building and less like a hole in the ground (thus far 375,000 tonnes of soil have been removed, so it was a big hole). The scale of construction is impressive. The Wellcome Trust’s Gibbs Building is just down the road from the site of the Crick and is where the project is currently based. The Gibbs is a large building but the Crick will be twice the length and twice the width of that building. The Crick is apparently the largest single-site construction underway in London, and also one of the most complex.
As we were shown round the site and told about the project I noted that construction is beset by the same problems as science when it comes to specialist jargon. I didn’t know what a “berm” was, nor the meaning of “rebar”, and the details of pilings and mole holes left me confused. But the enthusiasm and pride shown by our guides left me in no doubt that this is a very special project.
It struck me that each stage of the project is an enormous undertaking – first you must dig an enormous hole, then build an enormous building, then fit it out with a complex range of equipment. And meanwhile, you have to design the organisation that is going to go into the building – this is a parallel project in its own right. On top of all that, you have to tell the world what is going on. That means telling the local community what is coming to their doorstep, telling the scientific world what the Crick’s plans are, telling people in the two component institutes what is going on, and telling the wider world how things are progressing. Actually, you have to do more than just ‘tell’ you need to ‘engage’ as well. That is harder to do, but I think it is starting to happen.
One brilliant example of such engagement at community level is a project the Crick did with a local school during science week earlier this year. They have published a short video about the project and I think it is the loveliest film about kids and science I have seen for a long time.
The Crick is going to feature large in my working life for the next few years, so I will probably return to this topic from time to time.