New EMBO Director on Open Access, Reaching Out

Yesterday, Maria Leptin was appointed the new director of the European Molecular Biology Organization. EMBO is an honorary organization with more than 1300 members and a budget of €18 million. It administers a well-known fellowship program, sponsors meetings, and publishes four journals. Leptin, a developmental biologist at the Institute for Genetics at the University of Cologne in Germany, will take over from Hermann Bujard, who will step down at the end of the year. Leptin spoke with ScienceInsider earlier today. A transcript follows. (Leptin’s comments have been edited slightly for clarity.)

Q: What attracted you to the job?
M.L.: I’ve worked with EMBO for some time. It’s the only really European organization that looks after molecular biologists. … I just think what they’re doing is both good and important. It’s an organization with a really good spirit and with, I think, an important role.

Q: What is that role?
M.L.: EMBO is best known for its postdoctoral fellowship program, which has turned into more than a fellowship program. It has created a network of young molecular biologists. I think that’s good for European science. Everything EMBO does contributes to that—the workshops, the journals. [The organization] has an important role in creating a truly European network in this field.

Q: EMBO’s funding body, with delegates from the 27 member countries, just had its meeting. What is the budget outlook?
M.L.: This is not the greatest time, given the economic situation, to ask governments for money. Although if we look at what [U.S. President Barack] Obama is doing, I don’t see why Europe isn’t giving more money to science. I think we’re still hopeful that there won’t be any cuts but rather a small increase. The justification is obvious. [Science funding] is where innovation is going to come from.

Q: EMBO also has income from its journals. But it is getting more and more difficult to run a profitable journal. Is that something you’re worried about?
M.L.: There are four journals, and one is open access. It is a challenge to find a right way to run them. Many people feel that open access is the right way. I am really a fan of open access, but having said that, we do use the money we get from the journals and put it straight back into science. I don’t feel bad saying that we use the money from the journals to support our programs.

But we’ll be looking into this. We need to really work through it. We need to get the right people on board [to run the journals] so that we serve the scientific community in the way it wishes to be served and at the same not cut off the branch on which we’re sitting.

Q: EMBO has taken over the European Life Scientist Organization [ELSO] meeting. What does that mean for EMBO?
I think it’s really excellent. I have been involved in ELSO from its beginning. … It really was something that was lacking in Europe. It’s a forum for younger scientists and the whole community. I think it’s really good that it’s been fused with EMBO. EMBO has the fellowships for postdocs and the Young Investigator Program [which gives 3 years of funding to young group leaders], but in the past it has not provided much for the younger people. [The meeting] is a way of being in touch with the next lower generation. They get a good outlook on science and get access to all these career development resources.

It’s just a fantastic meeting. Look at the speakers. It’s an opportunity to meet people, to hear what is going on in other fields. It’s a European get-together of molecular biologists.

Q: What do you see as your biggest challenge?
M.L.: I wouldn’t call it a challenge exactly, but one thing that’s new is that there is now the European Research Council [ERC] that now distributes research grants, so some say, “Won’t EMBO be obsolete?” I think quite the opposite. I think the ERC initiative is really interesting, and [EMBO] members have been closely involved in getting it going. We will continue to support it.

I also think EMBO should embrace all of biology—ecology, neurology, medicine. Historically molecular biology was a small part of biology, but now there isn’t one field that doesn’t have a molecular aspect to it. I just think we’re at a point where it doesn’t make sense to exclude any field, so we should actively try to include a broader scope of researchers.

Perhaps we should also strive to be more noted by politicians. The [member] countries should be aware that they have a nationally unbiased organization that could advise on issues that interest politicians.