After a PhD and postdoc in molecular and cellular biology, Luc Van Dyck worked in the research department of a pharmaceutical company for 18 months, managing international projects. He joined the European Life Sciences Forum as executive coordinator 2 years ago. Here he describes the ups and downs of a week in science policy.
The office of the European Life Sciences Forum ( ELSF) is on the European Molecular Biology Laboratory ( EMBL) site, in the wooded hills above Heidelberg. Today is another rainy, foggy day, and, as too often this season, I feel like I am starring in a remake of Gorillas in the Mist.
As usual, my day starts with checking my e-mails, typically around 40 after a weekend, and killing the 'spams'. Nothing really important or urgent today, so I can focus on the task I have postponed for days: I print the latest papers from the European Commission ( EC)-pffft ... another hectare of the Amazon forest disappears--and scan through them. My task is to prepare an "executive summary" for the membership of the forum. Sometimes I wonder what they do with the information I send. It is part of ELSF's mission, and thus my duty, to inform its constituent societies and their members about EC policies and programmes. However, I sometimes doubt whether the information goes any further than ELSF Council delegates, my direct contacts. Is it really worth spending so much time on this? Oops, it sounds like my mood matches the weather.
Frank Gannon is the head of the European Molecular Biology Organisation ( EMBO), one of ELSF's founding members and major sponsors, which is also located on the EMBL site. I just got a call from Eilish, Frank's secretary, who says he has half an hour free for me in his very busy schedule. So I drop everything to make the most of an opportunity that cannot be missed!
ELSF is organising a high-level meeting to discuss the establishment of a European Research Council (ERC) that will support basic research on the European level. This is very important for me. Not only because of the topic, but also because I have been working for 2 years to establish and obtain recognition for the forum, and this meeting is the perfect opportunity to raise ELSF's visibility. Frank and I must decide on the composition of the discussion panels, making sure to have a well-balanced representation, scientifically and geographically, and that all the stakeholders are invited. It should not be difficult to attract participants: The idea of creating an ERC is widely supported, and three Nobel Prize laureates have already agreed to give keynote speeches at the meeting.
Back at my desk I search the database, write some invitations and, after lunch, get in touch with my contact in the cabinet of the European Commissioner, Philippe Busquin. We want to invite him to the plenary session of the meeting so that he can hear the scientists' perspective on an ERC. It's part of the political game: We know he backs the concept of an ERC, and he's a key player towards its creation. Most importantly, his presence would send an important signal of support to the scientific community as well as raising interest in the meeting. I cross my fingers for a few seconds, hoping that he will accept the invitation, then rush home to pack my stuff--I am going to Paris this evening.
UNESCO's division of basic science and engineering is co-organising and hosting the ERC meeting. It is a good deal, for us and for them: We benefit from the prestige of the organisation, which will also host the meeting for free; they fulfill their mission to be a forum for high-level discussions and to foster science development in Europe and elsewhere. Maciej Nalecz, the division's director, also sees the ERC as a model for research organisation and funding that, following adaptation, could possibly be exported to less favoured areas of the world. With him and his assistant, I go through the list of UNESCO's invitees and all the organisational details: security checks, catering, recording of the sessions, simultaneous translation, etc. Hopefully, all this will fit into my budget.
Lunchtime, and one of the week's most arduous duties: selecting a venue for the speakers' dinner. My host is an exquisite person with 'savoir vivre'. He takes me to La Gauloise, one of the favourite restaurants of François Mitterand, the former French president. As expected, the food is excellent; however, the restaurant with its small alcoves is not appropriate for an interactive dinner. The next place we visit will do the job.
After lunch, we head back to UNESCO's main building, Place de Fontenoy, where the meeting will be held. In UNESCO the C stands for Culture, and the building, which was constructed in the 1950s, is like a museum with its huge wall paintings by Miró, Picasso, and many others. Through the window, I can see one of Giacometti's "man walking" sculptures in the garden. ... The meeting room is used for UNESCO plenary sessions, and the desks harbour the names of all members and associated members of the organisation. Antigua, Bhutan, and Micronesia--they sound familiar to me. But Kiribati, Niue, Nauru, or Tokelau? One country, one vote, that's democracy; but what about demography? Surprise--there is no seat for the United States. Why aren't they members? Well, it's time to go back to Heidelberg.
Half a day devoted to the ERC meeting and half a day for other ELSF business; Earth doesn't stop rotating just because I have a meeting to organise. I prepare a short report on my visit to Paris for the organising team, call the hotel where the speakers will stay to try and negotiate a good bargain, and send more invitations.
In the afternoon, I meet with Gerlind, Jan, and Andrew, three EMBO managers with whom I organised a workshop on careers in the life sciences last September. We are working on the position paper arising from the workshop and are already way behind schedule. It is not always easy to find a moment when everyone is available because we all have our own projects and priorities. The discussion is a little bit tense: Each one of us has been assigned one aspect of a scientist's career and we now have to critically review the work of the others and fuse the different parts into one consistent text. But everyone has a different style, background, and way of looking at and expressing things, and, well when you've spent a lot of time writing something, it's hard to be asked to change it. ... It will require a lot more work before we come up with something that all of us can endorse. Then the piece will be submitted to the Councils of EMBO and ELSF for comments and adoption. Hopefully, they will not request too many changes!
There is an EMBO staff meeting this morning. Although I do not formally belong to EMBO, I am taking part because my office is located in the EMBO building and because I interact with EMBO staff daily. They are a nice bunch of people. We discuss building matters, future events such as conferences and workshops, training courses for staff members, and social activities; I make a brief presentation about the ERC meeting.
Next it's off to see Jason, the Webmaster of EMBL, to discuss the meeting Web site. I must provide the content; he will take care of the layout and load it on the Internet. Shame on me, I am unable to do that by myself. Sooner or later I will have to learn how, but in the meantime I'd rather be nice and bring him a bottle of wine. I am back in time for lunch: The weather is beautiful today and people from EMBO have ordered pizza. I skip the pizza--not good for my diet--but relax with them for a while on the terrace.
Back in the office I work on ELSF's response to a consultation on the future of biotechnology in Europe. The questionnaire was sent to all our members and widely advertised on their Web sites and in their newsletters, so that the response could be based on comments from grassroots scientists. I know already that not many, except for the usual handful, will take the time to answer--it is always the same! Initially, ELSF was meant to become a lobbying organisation and the voice of the life sciences. We thought, maybe naïvely, that we could find a way to directly access scientists' opinions. Indeed, the political climate surrounding this initiative was rather positive, with talk of a new 'social contract' between science and society and both policy-makers and the public seeking increasingly to interact with scientists. However, although nowadays it might be politically correct to say that European scientists are increasingly involved in political and societal debates, the reality is different: It is still up to a minority of scientists to get involved in public processes, whilst the vast majority hopes that someone else will do the necessary work. It is very frustrating. But, as usual, I reverse the process that ought to happen--preparing the document based on what I think the members think--and then getting it approved by Council. ...
It doesn't take much to make me happy: 'You have new mail', says my computer. And yes! Commissioner Busquin will come to the meeting! Sometimes, this job is really exciting. It's time for a beer and to put an end to this week!