The Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, a 125-year-old education and research institution best known for summer courses that attract scientists from around the world, has signed an agreement to affiliate with the University of Chicago, initiating a relationship that aims to put the center on a firmer financial footing.
The agreement, made official at a signing ceremony late Monday in New York, is part of a broader trend reflecting the struggle of independent research institutions that face increased competition for dwindling federal funds, amid other economic pressures.
Late last year, for example, the long-running Boston Biomedical Research Institute announced it would shut down due to financial problems exacerbated by increased competition for research grants.
The new relationship of the Marine Biological Laboratory and the University of Chicago will help the nonprofit trim costs and take advantage of the large research university’s clout and financial resources.
“It’s really tough to run a small independent research institution on grant income, because we don’t have the revenues associated with a university, like tuition or a large endowment or alumni donations,” said Joan V. Ruderman, president of the marine research institute, who said the search for an affiliation with a large institution began last summer.
The new agreement will allow the institution, which has a $43 million operating budget, to shore up its finances, in part by reducing administrative costs and insurance rates.
The 300-employee marine lab will also benefit from the University of Chicago's expertise in drafting strategic plans and the new connections it could make with federal agencies and funders, Ruderman said.
The Woods Hole center will remain a separate, nonprofit institution and continue its joint graduate program with Brown University.
Neil Shubin, an associate dean at the University of Chicago, said the affiliation will allow the university to expand its programs and offerings; currently, it has many marine biologists distributed over various departments.
“We’re a Midwestern university,” Shubin said. “We have fresh water, but we don’t have salt. We’re looking to put a little salt in our veins.”
Shubin said the affiliation will be analogous to its stewardship of two major national laboratories: the university manages Argonne National Laboratory, a science and engineering research center, and is a partner in a consortium that manages the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, a high-energy physics laboratory.
Those relationships have allowed the university to develop research and education programs in areas such as materials science and cosmology that would otherwise be difficult to maintain.
“We’re going to help them with their bottom line,” Shubin said. “Independent research institutions are really suffering in our country; that whole model is really endangered. It’s unfortunate, because those enterprises are really the source of so much science.”
Because the Woods Hole campus is most active during the summer, when more than 1,700 scientists from institutions across the world come for advanced classes and research opportunities, the university may try to find ways to use the facilities year-round, developing opportunities for students and scientists in the off-season.
The marine laboratory maintains five year-round research programs, focused on areas including regenerative biology, studies of ecosystems, and evolutionary biology.