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What do scientists need to be happy?

How much do you enjoy your place of work? Whether you love it or hate it could be influenced by its particular design and architecture. Architects shape the working environment of people. Since motivation and satisfaction of students or employees are positively correlated with higher productivity, architects are challenged to create places that link work with comfort. By purposeful designing of form, space, and ambience, they aim to develop both functional and welcoming buildings that make you look forward to Monday morning.

If you are an aspiring scientist (whether postgraduate student or postdoc), you almost certainly have a love-hate relationship with your project. The combination of such a huge time investment and a project with a subjectively perceived failure rate of about 95% can easily make you feel unbalanced. Moreover, you probably are a true researcher: devoted to science and willing to work crazy hours to get your results. Or at least that is what your supervisor wants you to believe. Your research institute is your second home. Thus, it should also be a place you feel comfortable working in. 

This raises the question of how much of an impact the architectural features of your workplace have on your spirits and scientific productivity. To assess a more general opinion among researchers, I conducted a small survey with a group of 27 aspiring scientists from different parts of Europe, all of whom were specialising in biology.

I initially asked them whether the architectural design of their research institute improves their working environment. About 40% responded in the negative. Interestingly, most of the dissatisfied researchers were based in old institutes. Many of these facilities no longer correspond to modern standards, mostly due to a lack of money. In case of historical buildings, one would presume that their charm and beauty make it a pleasure working there. But many of these facilities are protected by historic monument laws. Thus, any architectural adjustments that could improve research standards are prohibited.

Limited space and strict division into office space and laboratories were features that drew the most criticism from researchers. Many felt that having labs and offices on opposite sites of a building, as used to be common, interferes with their experimental workflow.

Overall, the majority of scientists recognised the positive impact of architectural design on their working environment. This suggests improved communication between architects and scientists, thus allowing the architects to become more appreciative of researchers' preferences.

After getting a general idea, I was curious to identify which architectural features scientists consider essential for efficient research, scientific exchange, and happiness at work. From the survey, it seems that researchers share a common vision regarding the perfect institute. Generally, their ideas focus more on practicality than on innovative design. Many researchers suggested short distances between different work places to ensure timely implementation of experiments. To avoid a hospital- or prison-like atmosphere and cheer people up, they aimed for spacious rooms with friendly and appealing colours and access to natural light. Their perfect institute also offered recreational areas, including canteens and common rooms, to support communication and a healthy balance between work and leisure.

Surprisingly, researchers favoured shared offices with up to four people over the concept of an open office space, a frequently used element to promote scientific exchange. Their main concern was that the open design reduces both concentration and privacy. The survey also highlighted a demand for libraries to provide additional space for undisturbed reading.

Architects are also artists, aiming to express themselves in their projects. I asked the scientists whether integration of art elements in the architecture of scientific buildings is appreciated and supports more innovative research.  True to their scientific background, only 40% of the interviewed researchers answered in the affirmative. This raises the question of why modern research institutes often have an artistic style. Perhaps it is because in recent years, scientific research has not only gained importance but also public attention. Thus, an institute should not only be useful for doing science but also reflect the importance of the work performed inside.

In conclusion, the survey revealed that architects are on the right track to design perfect research institutes. However, it also emphasised that they have to make an effort to better understand the needs of lab-based scientists.

Silke Logermann is a PhD student in the Centre for Inflammation Research

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