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Bioscience in Europe, which role for Italy?

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Adriano Buzzati Traverso will be remembered as scientist, professor and, above all, as manager of a research with no boundaries: during his frequent journeys abroad - on this or the other side of the Atlantic - he rapidly realized that bioscientific research in Italy had to get rid of any provincialism, empowering the exchanges with more advanced countries. Establishing the International Laboratory of Genetics and Biophysics (the Italian acronym is LIGB) was certainly his life’s venture. Hereby, however, we will dedicate few considerations to another aspect of his activity: his participation to the European Molecular Biology Organization  (EMBOfor promoting molecular biology (then, a newborn) and to the later establishment of its experimental research communitarian centre, the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL).

Even though he founded LIGB in 1962 - therefore only a couple of years earlier than EMBO (1964) - and established several connections between the two institutions, these two research bodies developed in a completely different way. Within 10 years, LIGB had to downsize its ambitions, whilst EMBO immediately gained a global role, which boasts and reinforces nowadays. However, it might have missed its principal aim: the creation of a unique and irreplaceable centre in its genre. Besides, according to some, over the years EMBO forgot about “solidarity” – as from the founding fathers’ vision – whilst pursuing excellence. Today this component is being re-evaluated because of the global crisis of traditional values.

EMBO, an analysis fifty years since its foundation

It is well known that a group of European biologists shaped EMBO to the image of CERN (European Council for Nuclear Research), which was founded in 1954 by a group of physicists – Amaldi among them – far too aware of the critical situation of Physics in Europe. In fact, after World War II, European physicists could hardly resist invitations (or competition) from colleagues active in the hegemonic world powers and nuclear physics itself had trouble metabolizing its “knowledge of the sin”, i.e. contributing to the production of atomic bombs. The founder fathers believed, and they were right, that nuclear research would have needed more and more complex and expensive instruments, with prohibitive costs for one nation alone. They were also certain that CERN would have contributed to maintain the quality tradition of European physics and would have strengthened relationships among European Countries, enemies in war until that very moment. Solidarity was on the agenda too: CERN would have helped smaller countries not to lose touch with the new research developments they were co-funding.

Over the years, CERN completely reached these goals and Italian physicists participated at any level in its management, often involved in the general and scientific direction and with a wide and incisive presence of Italian young researchers. Molecular biologists, on the other side, galvanized by the discovery of DNA functions (Avery et al., 1944) and DNA double-helical structure (Watson, Cricl et al., 1953), even though in a later moment, decided they were as worthy as physicists and needed a supranational structure  for their discipline too. On 1964, they established an organization for bioscience coordination, dissemination and consolidation: EMBO. Within a decade, a new structure appositely dedicated to experimental research followed: a new laboratory in Heidelberg (EMBL), and two outstations, one in Grenoble and another one in Hamburg. This unexpected peculiarity was in contrast with the unique character of the initiative (CERN, in fact, does not have outstations).

Focus on fundamental research lines too expensive even for the richest members of the European Community (France, Germany, United Kingdom and Italy) was the priority. The primary goal was excellence in research, but a particular attention would have been dedicated to “minor” members too, so as they could keep a significant role in biosciences and technological developments. In regards to funding, as for CERN, member countries would have contributed according to their GDP (for Italy it is 12% of the balance sheet) and based on their researchers’ expertise for what concern the scientific aspects. Science in general would have profited, but also the welfare of single member countries. Any talks about more quantifiable “returns” in accordance to the given contributes was absolutely prohibited: only excellence in research counted, sometimes self-certificated by friendly “house” press, but available only upon payment even for EMBO fellow researchers (nowadays we are more than 1,500). It is therefore clear that EMBO - and EMBL particularly - did not fully accomplish their mission, especially if compared with CERN. In the last 50 years, it has become quite clear that bioscientific research require equipment not even slightly comparable for costs and complexity to the CERN’s one. (Moreover, CERN followed a gradual and coherent development program for machineries – for example the Large Hadron Collider for Higgs boson identification represents the latest stage of accelerators assembled more than half a century ago, physiologically “upgraded” over the years – also explaining why member countries have accepted costs thousands times higher than the most sophisticated equipment for bio-molecular scientists). Similarly, even the most complex research projects (for example the Human Genome Project) allow private groups, like Celera by Venter, to compete with public international networks.

Consequently, laboratories such as EMBL in Heidelberg and its present 4 outstations (in the Nineties two more stations where established, in Cambridge and Rome) extended the expertise of EMBO, but did not fill the lack of uniqueness and essentiality which are universally acknowledged to CERN. Surely, EMBL reached good qualitative levels, but not superior to other important research institutes in the world and anyway hardly comparable with CERN results.  There is no doubt that the research activities carried out in the several EMBL centres could also take place in those other institutes; moreover, the inevitable trend of integrating within host countries’ programs is alarmingly originating serious conflicts of interest.

We shortly have to remind that: (1) EMBL activities lie on the communitarian balance sheet, therefore on every member country; (2) employees are typically “indigenous” (especially in the largest centres); (3) research-lines inevitably interact with local interests. Therefore, results from Heidelberg and Cambridge laboratories (the biggest ones, with hundreds of researchers) are relevant for communitarian or even global research, but sensibly contribute to the progress of host countries too, thanks to the numerous highly qualified employees and the significant technology applications. 

It should be enough to say that, this year, there is only one Italian on more than a hundred EMBL active team leaders and that Italy never had the general direction, only the direction of the Cambridge outstation, established by Paolo Zanella (from CERN!) in the Nineties. The situation in Rome is radically different: the outstation is small (about one tenth of the German or English centres), the assigned theme is mouse genetics, scarcely acquainted to our slim bio-molecular community.  The result? Since its establishment in 1994, general direction and operational tasks have been paradoxically the prerogative of any nationality-experts, but Italian. No other centre presents a similar anomaly: researchers are usually “indigenous”, they investigate themes close to the host countries’ interests and the applications contribute to the national progress.


which role for italy?

Serious considerations about our role in the EMBO/EMBL system are clearly necessary. Even though its aspiration to excellence is doubtless, we cannot postpone anymore the debate on costs/benefits ratio for members: general scientific progress is no more a sufficient “return” nowadays for countries contributing at the expense of “their” science. We cannot pretend to ignore that less scientifically developed countries subtract resources to their thin budget for national research programs when contributing to EMBO/EMBL. Most advanced countries live the opposite situation: communitarian research lines close to their national interests transform the overall contribute in sustain for hyper-sophisticated researches of few only.

To summarize, less developed countries see their participation in EMBL as an increasing penalization for their research, usually already underfunded, and therefore for their welfare, culture and work opportunities for the youngsters, which strongly correlate to the country scientific level. Italy is a clear proof. According to EMBO/EMBL co-opting mechanisms that regulate fellow elections and director appointments, the situation will just worsen unless the whole system is revised: English researchers are co-opted much more frequently than Italian ones. Therefore, the system in this last 50 years has been more and more disadvantaging for less developed countries, which have become “water carriers” for leading countries. Available solutions are nowadays limited, if we discard the idea of a polemic and unilateral exit (with the risk of cutting off vital bonds with the worldwide scientific community, besides losing already versed investments) and refuse continuing accepting the situation as it is (en attendant Godot).

A possible exit strategy might be the “nationalization” of present EMBL research bodies, which de facto already exists even though with different situations (Cambridge outstation has been strongly integrated by the hosting country, much differently from Rome outstation). Hosting countries could take over single structures upon fair payments, which might take in account value, usage and other quantifiable variables. Payments should go to EMBO itself, which could use this money for optimizing coordination and empowerment of a more genuinely communitarian bio-molecular research, also acting as authoritative consultant for sponsor institutions, European or not.  This solution would eliminate the imposed conspicuous contributes for EMBL experimental activities, which would remain prerogative and responsibility for the countries hosting the respective centres. 

 Defining the details of a similar conversion would require laborious reflections and delicate compromises, but its validity would lie on two solid bases: 1) acknowledging that molecular biology’s operational costs (in particular for instrumentations and devices), even though affordable by single nations and much lower than nuclear physics, are anyway conspicuous for countries, such as Italy, that deny the same amounts to their scientific research (belonging to EMBO/EMBL elite costs us yearly few tens of millions of euros); 2) rejecting any agreement that obligates less developed countries to neglect their national research for funding de facto other leading countries with no “returns” or, even worse, with damage for these forced and almost unknown financiers. Somebody should remind English and German colleagues that Italy partly pays for their countries’ excellence. It should be someone as Adriano Buzzati Traverso: a cosmopolitan, illuminist and militant scientist, careful observer of the national and international research. He probably would have more than some perplexities accepting the present role of Italy in EMBO/EMBL. Exactly with this title, back to the 1994, Science published a complain letter by some students of Buzzati Traverso (as who is writing was). Their doléances contributed to establishing the Rome outstation. It was a pyrrhic victory: the outstation’s scientific-management evolution is not helping improving the situation, difficult then and penalizing today.

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