Ian Mattaj, came to the PRBB last October for the celebration of the 10th anniversary of the CRG. This Scottish researcher is the director of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg, the largest molecular biology institution in Europe. He is also president of the CRG’s scientific advisory board, and he gave us his view on science at the CRG, in Catalonia, Spain and Europe.
How would you sum up the CRG´s first 10 years?
The CRG is remarkably successful for such a young institution. They have been recruiting foreign researchers, not so common in Spain, and they have set up some excellent programmes. It usually takes about 10 to 15 years for a research centre to really develop high quality, but the CRG has done so from the beginning. They have put in place mechanisms, some of them copied from the EMBL, which help ensure the quality of the research.
How has being part of the PRBB helped?
The CRG has no critical mass in every area, so having colleagues close by has definitely helped. We have just done the evaluations of the groups and I have heard about research clubs for neuroscience and computational biology, where researchers from the various centres at the PRBB, and even from other groups in Barcelona, meet and discuss their work every two weeks. This type of environment is really advantageous; it helps foster good research.
What do you think of current research in Catalonia and Spain?
Spain has produced many brilliant scientists, so the education system is obviously working, but the organisation of the public research system and researchers needs to change, along the lines we see in some institutes such as the CRG. Also continuous strong support from the political area is needed. The message of the Catalan government has been to support research that is excellent at international standard, and this is obviously the right way to improve all scientific productivity and even help the country.
How is the economic crisis affecting the R&D system in Europe?
Different countries have different degrees of economic problems, and some like Sweden or Germany have actually increased their budget for science, because they believe it is a good weapon to help fight possible future crises. In other countries I understand that cuts might be needed, but there are different ways to make them. In my opinion, if necessary, only non-high quality research should be cut.
What are the biggest challenges in molecular biology for the coming years?
There are different sorts of challenges. There are aspects of biology about which we know so little that we cannot even imagine understanding them, such as how the brain works to produce consciousness, the sense of self etc., that it is a big long-term challenge.
In the shorter term, I think an important issue will be how we can apply the recent technological developments in biomedicine, such as next generation sequencing, to improve our health. The possibilities are endless, but so far they are only possibilities.