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Max Planck Goes To Florida, Invites Brain Scientists To Join


One of Europe's best-known research organizations is conducting a high-stakes science experiment in Florida. Germany's Max Planck Society has launched a cutting-edge institute for brain science in Jupiter. It's a town in Palm Beach County best known for its ties to professional golf. NPR's Jon Hamilton reports it's all part of an effort to entice the world's top brain scientists.

JON HAMILTON, BYLINE: In Germany, the nonprofit Max Planck Society is a big deal. Its scientists have won 17 Nobel Prizes since 1948. It employs thousands of people at dozens of institutes around the country. But the society's president, Peter Gruss, says his organization's future lies elsewhere.

PETER GRUSS: If you want to be on top you have to be international because the best brains are not always in your country.

HAMILTON: So, Max Planck is going where those brains are: Asia, Latin America, and the U.S. Gruss says the Society chose Jupiter, Florida because a new brain institute in Boston or San Diego wouldn't have much impact.

GRUSS: In Florida, we could make a huge impact. We are a visible lighthouse for excellent science in Florida, we are appreciated in Florida, and we were able to recruit the best people to this institute in Florida.

HAMILTON: Max Planck is getting nearly $188 million from state and local sources to help start the institute. And that sort of funding has helped attract top scientists like David Fitzpatrick. Before taking the CEO job at Max Planck, Fitzpatrick ran the Institute for Brain Sciences at Duke University. Fitzpatrick says the Institute's mission is to investigate basic questions about things like how neurons communicate and how brain circuits form.

DAVID FITZPATRICK: The answers to these fundamental questions are critical for addressing a broad range of neurological and psychiatric disorders. That includes autism, schizophrenia, depression, Alzheimer's disease. I could go on and on.

HAMILTON: So far, Max Planck Florida has hired about 130 people. They work in a gleaming 100,000-square-foot research facility which opened about 18 months ago. Fitzpatrick says that because the Institute has plenty of start-up funding, its scientists can take on risky projects that would be impossible for most grant-funded university researchers. He says the idea is to provide the scientists with enough resources to try out unproved but promising lines of research.

FITZPATRICK: And that research, when it gets to a point where funding agencies can see the value, can see the preliminary data that demonstrates that it will yield successful results, that puts us in a really unique competitive position.

HAMILTON: Max Planck isn't part of an academic institution. But Fitzpatrick says its researchers need to be part of a scientific community. So, the institute chose a spot across the street from both Florida Atlantic University and Scripps Florida, another independent nonprofit research organization. Fitzpatrick says together these institutions are creating a hub for brain science.

FITZPATRICK: We have a very strong neuroscience community here that I think you are going to be hearing about in the next few years for all the exciting things that are happening here.

HAMILTON: But there are some big challenges. Dawn Johnson is the senior director of Scripps Florida. Johnson says when Scripps arrived a decade ago, research money was plentiful.

DAWN JOHNSON: Everybody started, you know, jumping on the bandwagon of growth in the biomedical research arena.

HAMILTON: Then came the recession and an end to increases in government funding. That has meant a lot more competition for grants. And Max Planck Florida faces a special challenge because it doesn't have a long history with funding agencies like the National Institutes of Health. On the other hand, brain research is a hot field right now and it's getting special funding from President Obama's BRAIN initiative. Johnson says the success of both Scripps and Max Planck depends on persuading world-class scientists to embrace a quiet coastal city where the local celebrities tend to be professional golfers like Tiger Woods.

JOHNSON: Definitely, Jupiter is worlds away from San Francisco.

HAMILTON: Johnson, who came from the NIH, says a smaller city can be a good thing.

JOHNSON: When I lived in D.C., it took me an hour and a half to get from Bethesda to my house in Alexandria. Now, it's 15 minutes.

HAMILTON: And even in January, the temperature is usually in the 70s. Jon Hamilton, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jon Hamilton is a correspondent for NPR's Science Desk. Currently he focuses on neuroscience and health risks.