London, UK (Scicasts) — Last week, Scicasts got a chance to talk to Prof. Michel Goldman — co-chair of the Catalyzer selection committee at BIOVISION Life Sciences Forum 2015, professor at the Université Libre de Bruxelles and former executive director of the Innovative Medicine Initiative. We asked Prof. Goldman how he sees the current state of affairs in research funding in Europe - what are the trends and what could be improved?
Prof. Goldman, What in your opinion are the current trends in science funding in Europe? For instance, we’ve noticed that the priorities for science funding of late seem to be defined by the European Commission and other governments are trying to adopt that. Is that something that you are witnessing?
You see, most of the resources allocated to research today are coming from member states. That, in my view, is a great obstacle in developing a consistent, ambitious and comprehensive funding strategy for research. Obviously, I know more about life sciences than anything else. There are efforts to have joint activities, co-funded by member states and European Commission. But it is still largely insufficient. In my opinion, the main reason why we are behind the United States is because they have the NIH and here funding is still fragmented. Moreover, in the medical research area, an additional dimension is the organization of the health care systems. Although we have the European Medicine Agency, which is very good, the reimbursement of the new medicines and payment for health care is still organized on the national level. In drug discovery or research of new therapies, the question of payment strategy becomes more and more important. There is still room for better integration. Although attempts are being made, efforts for better integration are still needed from Baltic countries or Poland. For me, there is still a need to do much better, especially if we want to be competitive against the US and Asia.
Do you think the problem may be that there is no centralized commission or funding body in the EU? So far, there are the ERC, Horizon 2020 and the whole Europe 2020 programme, which are trying to bring the EU states together and combat the aftermaths of the 2008 economic crisis. Do you feel the difference after the start of Horizon 2020?
The ERC is a very good example. However, it is designed for funding exceptional individuals and not so much focused on bringing people together or fostering collaborations across countries. But it’s the right model because it’s really Pan-European and is focusing on excellence. Regarding the other commission programme [Horizon], I think they are good, I was in charge of the Innovative Medicines Initiative (IMI) myself. There are many good things there but again, it’s only a fraction of the total volume, focusing on medical research across Europe. Another point is that even at the Euro level you have different programmes. Take, for instance, the programme on Structural Funds. These are funds for many regional countries, especially those less developed. Yet many countries will go for the structural funds instead of competing for other funds. So in a way, even within Europe this will then result in some fragmentation. I think that a better integration of different instruments, especially considering structural funds, would be beneficial.
Could you tell a us bit more about your current projects?
I stepped down from being an Executive Director of the Innovative Medicines Initiatives in December 2014, I am still involved in policy making. I am now back in academia, building a new institute for research and education and focusing on innovation.
Are you trying to connect academia and business there or, perhaps, research and education? What is the strategy of this project?
There are different levels of connections that we are trying to achieve. First of all, I think it is important to connect people, whose work have similar objectives. Sometimes they don’t realize that they should join forces. For example, when you think about medical research, you usually forget that you need an economist to prepare the next step in the new product development, you need lawyer to make sure that you protect intellectual property the way you should. You need bio-informaticians because we are more and more dependent on big data, knowledge management and artificial intelligence. It is very important to connect all these people so that they know what they need to do and know about the activities of other stakeholders and actors. Moreover, looking at the economics and policy in general, we need to connect countries or regions, working in similar areas. For big challenges, like dementia, for example, it’s clear that even Europe alone will not make it. We really have to work at the global level. As a director at our institute, I will try to connect people and align their objectives.
When we are talking about collaboration and applying the results of science research, who should be the one to make the first step? Is it the duty of scientists to think about the applications of their research when they start a project? Or should companies be more proactive?
That’s a really good question. I would say, it is a joint responsibility. Basic scientists are expected to be creative, imaginative, to think out of the box, and I don’t think that we should put pressure on them. It would be the responsibility of the Technology Transfer Office at the university to scout for promising results, and then discuss with the private sector the best way to develop the results. But I don’t think that the burden should be on the shoulders of basic scientists. I think it is very important to keep and support very good basic scientists. We should not interfere too much and rather let them do what they feel they should. That is what ERC is doing. Now, it is their responsibility and the responsibility of the university, once something has been discovered that can be exploited, to organize [knowledge transfer]. Sometimes, the public sector will need to invest first and come closer from potential application, sometimes the private partner would say that [the project] is mature enough and we will move forward on our own. And very often public-private partnerships will be needed to make a bridge, which is being done at the IMI.
Overall, how much funding do you think should be allocated to basic vs applied research?
For me, the answer to this question is both easy and difficult. I think it should come from looking at the excellent projects which could not be funded by the ERC. I was serving on one of the panels where we had to turn down excellent applications simply because we did not have enough funding. This is what we should look at and see what additional money we would need to fund those [projects].
As science is becoming more and more international, it is almost a requirement nowadays for young researchers to do a project abroad. Are you aware of any programs focusing on bringing those people back?
There are different individual programs available, such as Marie-Curie program, and this is necessary but not sufficient. To attract people, you need not only to offer them money but an environment, an ecosystem where they can develop and where there will be new opportunities for them. For me, that’s very often lacking. People think “let’s offer a few positions for people who are abroad and they will come”. Obviously, some will come and apply, but we need to attract the best of them and they will look not only at the position and salary but at the perspectives. I don’t think that programmes specifically dedicated to returning people to Europe alone are sufficient. These programmes should be a part of [the strategy], but it’s not a complete answer.
Do you have anything to say about the common issue that many young people drop out after PhD or the first postdoc, simply because there are not enough positions available? Do you think it’s related to funding or, are there other important factors at play here?
Perhaps, I will surprise you. I don’t think that we need more [senior] positions in academia. Perhaps we need some more, but what we really need in academia are positions for the youngest, most brilliant scientists that we can train as PhDs and postdocs. If after one or two postdocs you are extremely bright and can become a real leader, there should be positions in academia. But especially in area of biomedical sciences, people should realize that there is a future outside the university. Very often, if researchers are not at the top in terms of track record, they should look at other opportunities and not just mimic the career of their professor. And this is what I will try and do at our institute – I will try and indicate to people that to switch to industry, NGO or be a part of the regulatory agency can be extremely exciting and rewarding and it may also represent key contribution to the development of medical sciences. We should think not only about more positions in academia but we should educate people that, indeed, there is life outside academia.
Where do you think, in this case, is the origin of the common notion of being a failure if you do not succeed in academia?
You know, this is what I often call “professor-mimicry”. Imagine, that you have a mentor. If you are lucky with your mentor, you will admire him/her and consider them as an example, which is fine, to some extent. In the US, many of the professors will also create spin-off companies or consultancies, which happens in Europe as well, but here it is seen less positively. It’s seen as if instead of doing pure science, you are looking for profit and commercialization and in a way you are ... what is the word for it?
A traitor to science?
The last question, Prof. Goldman – what would be your prognosis for the change in funding trends in Europe over the next ten years? Do you think the funding will become more centralized or the national governments will develop more different programs?
This is a very difficult prediction because it very much depends on how Europe will or will not develop. My vision here is that science, culture and arts should help in building the European Union and making Europe stronger. So far we have been focusing on the euro, on financial, economic aspects, which is very important. But I think that we are missing a huge opportunity with science and arts. I think that scientists and artists are often most excited to contribute to the world together and help with new vision. The question here is whether they will succeed to convince politicians. I don’t know, what the balance will look like but since I am an optimist by nature, I hope that some breakthrough will pave the way for those developments, more investments and more integration. Look at what CERN has done for Europe. I think that we need a real breakthrough in an area such as gene therapies. Gene therapies, by and large, is a European story and we already have gene therapy projects reaching the market. If one of those breakthroughs in a common disease happened, it could result in moving things forward. But it’s difficult to predict.
A bit like with physics in the beginning of the 20th century. People are saying that biosciences can be the theoretical physics of the 21st century.
Yes, that is a very good analogy. But what physics did very well was organizing collaborations, evaluation and rewarding system. They look at academic scientific projection in a much cleverer way than what biomedical scientists are doing with the impact factor [the impact factor of a journal reflects how often the articles are being cited; publishing research in journals with high impact factor is a main criteria for success among biomedical scientists], with the H-index etc. In physics, the system is organized in a different way. It is still competitive, but we have to learn a lot from the physics.
Prof. Michel Goldman is currently head of the Institute for Medical Immunology in Charleroi, Belgium. As a co-chair of BIOVISION 2015 Catalyzer selection committee, Prof. Goldman granted the 2015 BIOVISION Catalyzer Award to Diabeloop. He also gave two special awards to Cartimage and the GitHealth project supported by Novadiscovery. These awards recognize projects with high innovation potential that will provide benefits to both individuals and society.
Scicasts would like to acknowledge the BIOVISION 2015 forum for their support in arranging this interview.