Science meets policy and politics
Highlights from the EMBO | EMBL Anniversary Science and Policy Meeting
2014 marks the 50th anniversary of EMBO, the 45th anniversary of the European Molecular Biology Conference (EMBC), the organization of member states who fund EMBO, and the 40th anniversary of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL). EMBO, EMBC, and EMBL recently combined their efforts to put together a joint event at the EMBL Advanced Training Centre in Heidelberg, Germany, on 2 and 3 July 2014. The anniversary celebration recognized the science that has contributed to the success of the organizations over the years and acknowledged the roles of EMBO, EMBC, and EMBL in policy, politics, and society.
The meeting featured the participation of European ministerial representatives, scientific talks from researchers, and presentations on policy issues focused on excellence and inclusion. It was also an opportunity to bring togethercurrent and former directors of EMBO and EMBL as well as former committee and council members who shaped the direction of both organizations over the last decades.
Maria Leptin, Director of EMBO, and Iain Mattaj, Director General of EMBL, opened the meeting and welcomed more than 250 scientists, politicians, policy makers, supporters of science, and friends of EMBO from across the world. In their presentations, they summarized the past, present and future roles of each organization. “EMBO’s achievements have been possible due to cross-country cooperation,” said Leptin. “The foundation of EMBC in 1969 had a dual aim: To secure a source of funds for the activities of EMBO and to provide a framework to establish the European Molecular Biology Laboratory. It is a remarkable testament that both goals have been achieved.”
Georg Schütte, State Secretary of the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research, emphasized how EMBO and EMBL have been trendsetters in the life sciences. “Many former EMBL researchers are now directors of internationally renowned research institutions in Europe and have dispersed this philosophy of EMBL and EMBO across Europe,” said Schütte. He also discussed the crucial early roles EMBO and EMBL played in helping molecular biology become a major, if not one of the most important, forces in influencing the life sciences over the last several decades.
The importance of the scientific workforce as a whole and the individual scientists contributing to research was discussed in several contexts. “EMBO and EMBL have shown that when Europe combines its forces by bringing together its best talents, it can lead the world in science and innovation,” remarked Robert-Jan Smits, Director-General, Research & Innovation, for the European Commission. The development and implementation of key infrastructures and the provision of training have been important contributions to the European life science community.
The ability to bring highly trained individuals together, either within a physical infrastructure like EMBL, or in transnational research projects, will be a key contributor to advancing science and research in Europe over the next several decades.
In a scientific talk, Elizabeth Murchison of the University of Cambridge described her groundbreaking work to investigate two types of transmissible cancer: the Tasmanian devil facial tumour disease and the canine transmissible venereal tumour. After a ceremony to unveil the ScienceTree (see box), an oak tree planted in soil obtained from countries throughout the European Union to symbolize the importance of European integration, representatives from the governments of France, Luxembourg, Malta, Spain and Switzerland took part in a panel discussion moderated by Marja Makarow, Vice President for Research of the Academy of Finland. Mauro Dell'Ambrogio, State Secretary for Education, Research and Innovation in Switzerland, stressed that science policy, to be effective, must not only invest in knowledge but also in people. Carmen Vela, Spain’s Secretary of State for Research, Development and Innovation, outlined how participation in EMBL had been essential for the development of science in her country. Evarist Bartolo, the Minister of Education and Employment of Malta, outlined the state of life science research in his country. Malta’s application to become a member of both EMBL and the European Molecular Biology Conference was endorsed in the same week as the anniversary meeting, an excellent illustration of the roles of EMBO, EMBC, and EMBL in contributing to the cohesiveness of European research.
The second day of the meeting focused on concerns about excellence and inclusion in scientific research. Bruno Strasser, a science historian at the University of Geneva, opened by recounting the origins of EMBO and the European Molecular Biology Conference. “The history of the European Molecular Biology Conference illustrates how molecular biologists succeeded in bringing their discipline to national and international political agendas and gained broad intergovernmental backing.” The journey was not straightforward and many of the barriers appear familiar for transnational cooperation projects. The scientists active in the early years of EMBO and the EMBC learned quickly and were remarkably astute in ascertaining what was needed in the context of science policy. The foundation of the EMBC was an essential step for the sustainable funding of the activities of EMBO, and of the laboratory that was established in 1974.
Marc Heppener of the European Space Agency explained how the ESA works as a platform for the inclusion of nations with emerging interests in space science and space exploration. He described some of the many successful projects that have been concluded or are in progress.
The meeting concluded with a talk and discussion specifically on the relationship between excellence and inclusion by Helga Nowotny, ERA Council Forum, Austria. The promotion of excellence is essential and well established in the European scientific landscape but challenges exist in ensuring that everyone benefits. “We are all striving to support and promote excellence in the life sciences but we have to be acutely aware that it must be inclusive and take into consideration diversity,” said Nowotny. This precise concern, how to recognize and reward excellence while promoting the development of new entrants to research, is exactly the intersection where EMBO, EMBC, and EMBL will continue to work in the years ahead.