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Promoting Scientific Excellence in Europe

 In 2003 I had the opportunity to talk to Prof. Dr. Gottfried Schatz, at that time President of the Swiss Science and Technology Council, at the Handelsblatt-conference “Trends in Biotechnology” in Vienna, where Gottfried Schatz had held a lecture about research barriers within Europe.
Gottfried Schatz offensively criticized that the European systems of university education and research funding hinder the development of scientific excellence. In his view, money for research – by working after the principle of discriminate all-round distribution – was too broadly scattered instead of promoting purposefully. Permanent academic positions and the rigid hierarchy structures at European universities were also a thorn in his flesh. Dr. Schatz was an enthusiastic advocate for the introduction of a tenure track system at European universities, and expected it to generate higher flexibility in science and education as well as to give highly qualified scientists clearer future prospects and better chances.
8 years have passed by.
Did things change?
Did the scientific systems really develop?

Dr. Schatz. You are shaking at the pillars of the academic system that got stuck in many Central European countries. You are demanding structural changes as well as a new thinking in the fostering of young people. What feedback do you get from your colleagues and from the industry on your suggestions? How do people receive your criticism?

The support by non-university circles is very positive. The support from university circles is surprisingly up and down. My colleagues in the natural sciences – particularly in the biological sciences – take it predominantly positive. More conservative disciplines – I think of chemistry and mathematics – are rather reserved. And the representatives of the arts subjects and medicine are almost exclusively in opposition.

How do you explain these differences between the disciplines?

It was unfortunately shown that these different cultures – how someone once called it – already drifted pretty far apart from each other. Also, they do not see themselves as part of a common science anymore. Representatives of the arts subjects emphasize again and again that their methods would be different, that they would need the variety of smaller institutes. And they criticize that a tenure track system – as I suggested it – would endanger this diversity.

This thinking results from the structures in those these arts subjects work today to a large extent. They are so strongly split up that they often consist of small kingdoms, which have relative limited contact among themselves. This is not only a disaster for the scientific research but also for the education of young scientists, that in consequence is too much restricted. For example, during their time as PhD students – which can last up to 8 years – many young scientists have only contact to one single supervisor. 100 years before the natural sciences were seen as high specialized and the arts subjects as more broaden. Meanwhile the situation has turned around.

Will the disciplines – as expected – emancipate from each other? What chances for changes do you see?

Practically we could develop larger structures, starting with the academic education. Here the need for broader and intellectually more varying opportunities is unquestioned. The instrument which we suggested in Switzerland are the graduate courses (“Graduiertenkollegs”) – similar to those in Germany -where groups of graduate students are supervised by groups of professors. So each student has at least 2 to 3 supervisors, and at the same time is in contact with a couple of other graduate students. There are various advantages of this system:

  • the time the students need to finish their thesis’ is decreased,
  • the graduate student’s education is more broaden,
  • the students are treated fairer,
  • and there is a much larger, more interesting scientific environment.

At the same time universities will have to think about bigger units – for example departments of cultural sciences, in whose a much more objective and stronger encouragement of young people will take place compared to an institute that just consists of a professor and an assistant.

Now I would like to dare a topical jump. You spoke very much about “excellence” in your lecture at the Vienna conference. You criticized that especially colleagues who are doing the most remarkable things do not get sufficient support and sponsorship. As an example you mentioned that research funds are too broadly distributed and not decently canalized. What are the instruments science, politics and industry could use to back “excellence”?

I think that at this very point all participants of our scientific system need to look after their responsibilities and develop clear principles. Innovation will only take place when hierarchical structures are as flat as possible, and only skills count and not age or establishment. Public sponsorship should be intentionally orientated to scientific top quality and – I frankly use this wording – in an elitist fashion. For example, in a situation of low budgets the traditional proportional shortenings affecting all colleagues to the same extend are wrong. The best should always have sufficient money available to continue their work in a proper way, even when the mediocrity as a consequence is getting few or nothing at all. But to do that requires a huge amount of political courage.

I admire you for saying these things so openly. You are definitely criticizing ideologically shaped social dogmas of the university education. And I could well imagine that others would be probably stoned for such statements.

That would be a worthy martyr death. [laughing] I am convinced that we missed to explain to the public how research really works. Democracy is extremely important – also in science. And flat hierarchies are a basic principle of a democratically functioning science. But democracy does neither guarantee equal talent nor equal success, but just equal chances. Democracy simply is not egalitarianism but has to facilitate the fair promotion of all talents. It is in the public interest to promote innovation by giving sufficient resources to those who are able to achieve innovation. And I believe that this can easily be explained – even to fundamentalists – and is also mostly accepted by politicians.

Please give me the opportunity to return again to the promotion of new generations of academics at this point. I have been particularly surprised – and was also disappointed – about the very reserved reaction of many young scientists with regard to new concepts of the promotion of young people. It is quite understandable that people play a waiting game. But one of the main concerns is: what happens to those, who do not pass the tenure? For our European culture it is hard to accept that every positive selection automatically includes a negative selection. But the idea of giving everyone the basic right to remain at an university is not acceptable for me.

It is thus very important that our non-professorial teaching staff will give up their status consciousness. In Germany, also in Austria but not so much in Switzerland, this is one of the major problems universities have. If we want to give young scientists more rights, then at present we give these rights to the hands of a generation around the age of 40 that is partially much more reactionary than the professors are. And that is the dilemma of every attempt to reform the universities.

Finally, a true improvement of the situation also requires one of the most effective mechanisms of young people’s promotion: early retirements of professors. In the USA people went exactly into the opposite direction and let everyone in his or her position as long as he or she wants to. To my opinion this is damaging for the system and ethically not acceptable.

From your point of view, which European country is the most innovative as regards supporting scientific research as well as young scientists?

Regarding research support the Scandinavian countries, the Netherlands and also Switzerland are very good… followed with some distance by Germany. Regarding the encouragement of young scientists I do not know any European country, that I could give a sufficient mark.

Thank you very much for the interview, Dr. Schatz.

Editor’s Note

This is the English translation of an interview originally done in German language.

Dr. Gottfried Schatz is President of the Science Council of the Institut Curie (Paris), Scientific Councillor of the Institut Pasteur (Paris), and President of the Swiss Science and Technology Council. After receiving his Ph.D. in Chemistry from the University of Graz in 1961, Gottfried Schatz joined the Biochemistry Department of the University of Vienna where he began his studies on the biogenesis of mitochondria and discovered mitochondrial DNA. From 1964 to 1966 he worked as a postdoctoral fellow with Efraim Racker at the Public Health Research Institute of the City of New York on the mechanism of oxidative phosphorylation. After a brief interlude back in Vienna, he emigrated to the USA in 1968 to join the staff of the Biochemistry Department at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. Six years later, he moved to the newly created Biozentrum of the University of Basel where he and his group elucidated the mechanism of protein transport into mitochondria. Gottfried Schatz is a member of many scientific academies, including the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, the Royal Swedish Society, and the Netherlands Academy of Sciences, and has been awarded the Louis Jeantet Prize, the Marcel Benoist Prize, the Gairdner Award, the Krebs Medal, the Warburg Medal, the E.B. Wilson Medal, and many other honors. He has served as Secretary General of the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO), as Councillor of The Protein Society, and as Chairman of many Advisory Boards.

Originally published on February 27, 2003 by Inside-Lifescience, ISSN 1610-0255

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