“At the PRBB you have created the right atmosphere and spirit”

An interview recently published in Ellipse, the monthly magazine of the PRBB

Hermann Bujard was from 2007 until 2009 the  director of the European Molecular Biology Organisation (EMBO), which started 45 years ago with 13 member states and now has now up to 27. Bujard has worked both in academia and in industry, having also been scientific director at Hoffmann La Roche. Now currently working on malaria, he visited the PRBB and told us about his vision of science.

What is the role of EMBO? 
EMBO has played an important role in the development of modern life sciences in Europe. We identify and support postdoctoral fellows and young group leaders around the world, and we organise meetings and publish some journals. We only have an annual budget of only 16 million €, but we offer quality and support to individuals. We have created a network of excellence throughout Europe: if you look at the CV of any high quality life scientist in Europe, at some period in their career they will have been involved with EMBO. And this network leads to many cross-border collaborations.

What is the situation regarding female researchers? 
This is a long-standing issue at EMBO, and a difficult one. More than 50% of students are female, while at the senior level women occupy only 15% of the positions. I think the research careers are such that we select against very precious good and original people, not only women but also men. It’s a very tough The competition is very tough, and by the time you get a 5-year position you are 37 and you might want to have a family, but you still have a lot of insecurity and a low salary. In addition you have the publishing pressure. Many women who would be very capable scientists just don’t want to go down this road. And we have to think whether we can afford to lose 50% of our creative brains.

What is the solution? 
I think that we should look at the whole career of the person and not only their publications. At the moment, we select people who publish a lot, but they normally do mainstream research. and these usually do research on the main stream. There are researchers that are good and original thinkers and may publish only one paper every two years, but each of them is a seminal piece of work. And yet, we select against them. We are too much success-oriented in the short-term. Instead, we should ask the applicants for their four best papers, read them and decide if the person has good ideas.

What has changed in European science in the last 15 years? 
Spain is my favourite country to exemplify that change. 15 years ago people from Spain only applied for fellowships to leave, while today many people apply to come to the new centres of excellence in Madrid or Barcelona, and not only Spaniards, but people from the UK or America. And this is a success of structure: highly valued scientists have introduced a critical mass of people working together in a departmental structure which is very good for small and young independent groups.

For example, what you have established here at the PRBB is very close to how things should work. The founders of the park created a spirit that can be seen in the way people behave. When you select very good group leaders, you get good postdocs, good students. And good people are not shy, they communicate, are open to discussion. I think this atmosphere exists here.

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