Move to Allston Uncertain for Stem Cell Department

Contingency plan would have stem cell researchers displace MCB dept. in Fairchild

In a move that bodes ill for University plans to transform its new Allston campus into a mecca for stem cell research, Harvard provost Steven E. Hyman has asked faculty to consider the possibility of housing the department of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology in existing University facilities in Cambridge.

The reexamination of the future location of the SCRB department—previously heralded as a centerpiece of science in Allston—came just two months after the University stated that it would be reconsidering the scale and pace of its expansion in response to unprecedented endowment losses.

Besides representing one of the administration’s first major moves to rein in its Allston ambitions, the new plan would have repercussions for departments outside SCRB.

The molecular and cellular biology department has been asked to prepare plans to vacate the Sherman-Fairchild building in order to provide a unified space for stem cell scientists even if Allston plans are slowed, MCB department chair Catherine Dulac said yesterday.

Dulac’s department would consolidate its operations in the Biological Laboratories and the Northwest building, both of which it already occupies.

According to an MCB professor familiar with the discussions, the new plan would divert funds originally intended for the science complex in Allston to renovate Fairchild for its new residents. Several stem cell labs, including those of renowned professors Douglas A. Melton and Kevin Eggan, are already located in Fairchild.

The source—who asked to remain anonymous to protect his relationship with University officials—also said that the MCB department has been told to plan for an evacuation of Fairchild in six to twelve months, suggesting that the University will soon release a more definitive timeline for construction projects in Allston.

“We were shocked to hear about the contingency plan, which would involve severe disruption of our operations,” Dulac said. But she noted that no decision on the pace of progress in Allston has been made.

“It has to be clear that this is a ‘Plan B’ in case the Allston campus Science 1 building won’t be built or is delayed,” she said.

Dulac also expressed concern that the move could hamper plans to expand the Center for Systems Biology and the Center for Brain Science, currently situated in the Northwest building.

“We’re trying to find a plan that would be favorable or good for all parties involved,” said Dulac, who has been in communication with University officials to ensure that the move’s repercussions and damage to the department would be minimized.

But she acknowledged that Harvard’s financial woes require officials to devise contingency plans for University initiatives—including stem cell research—tied to expensive construction projects in Allston.

Harvard received unanimous approval in Oct. 2007 from the Boston Redevelopment Authority to build the First Science building in Allston—a 589,000-square-foot complex intended to house the SCRB department and the Harvard Stem Cell Institute. Harvard said the building would open in 2011.

The current proposal to keep the SCRB department in Cambridge marks a departure from those plans and from the ambition of conversations last year, when officials were considering the construction of a second science facility across the river.

Douglas A. Melton—who co-directs the Stem Cell Institute and co-chairs the SCRB department—said yesterday that construction of the First Science building was still underway pending a University decision, and that he still hoped to move his department there.

“I’m certain there are contingency plans if Allston doesn’t go forward on schedule, but that decision hasn’t been made,” Melton said. He added that the attention given to the plan to vacate Fairchild was “overblown,” and that the University is considering other options to house SCRB, including the Longwood medical area.

Melton’s colleague Kevin Eggan also said that the future of the SCRB department awaited a University ruling, but that if Allston plans were to “fall through,” he would prefer Fairchild to Longwood, twenty minutes away.

“I personally think Cambridge would likely be the better home given the important role that this department will play in undergraduate education at the college,” Eggan wrote in an e-mailed statement.

Several members of the Stem Cell Institute interviewed by The Crimson yesterday said they had not heard of any plans to move to Fairchild. But many MCB faculty members said they had heard the plan discussed late last week.

Melton—a renowned stem cell researcher who has created and distributed stem cell lines free of charge for research purposes—has said in the past that an Allston facility would facilitate expansion of the SCRB department and encourage collaboration between scattered stem cell researchers.

—Staff Writer Esther I. Yi can be reached at estheryi@fas.harvard.edu.

—Staff Writer Peter F. Zhu can be reached at pzhu@fas.harvard.edu.