"EMBO Should Speak for all Biologists in Europe"

A conversation with Maria Leptin, EMBO, Heidelberg
Interview: Karin Hollricher, Labtimes 04/2014

Photo: EMBOPhoto: EMBO

About 250 kilometres separate Heidelberg from Cologne, Maria Leptin's two places of work. Her research topics are, at first sight, just as wide apart: Drosophila development and zebrafish immunology. Her first scientific love was immunology. In 1983, she received her PhD from the Basel Institute for Immunology for her work on B-cell activation. Shortly after, she got more interested in fruit fly development, when she became a postdoctoral fellow in Michael Wilcox's lab at the Medical Research Council Laboratory for Molecular Biology in Cambridge, UK. In 1989, Leptin enjoyed a short stint at the University of California, San Francisco before returning to Europe and leading a research group at the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology in Tübingen, Germany. Since 1994, she has been a professor of genetics at the University of Cologne and since 2010 director of EMBO, with a second research group at the EMBL, Heidelberg. Her research focuses on cell shape determination in Drosophila and the genetics of pathogen resistance in zebrafish.

Lab Times: Why did you accept this busy job as the EMBO Director? Weren't you fully engaged with research?

Leptin: Of course I was – but not only with science, since at the university you also have many other, non-research duties – teaching, administration and so on. So it's not as if I went from a job spending all my time doing research to one that was only administration. Also, at this time, my children were about to leave home, so I had more free time to dedicate to the new job and was able to increase my working hours again to the level they were at before we had kids. This means that not all of the extra time spent on EMBO work had to come out of research time.

You didn't give up science, yet you have two groups working in two cities. Aren't you occupied with this director job?

Leptin: Of course the EMBO directorship is a demanding task that needs a lot of concentration. But I would not have considered the position if it had meant giving up research. Council and the Secretary General had made a clear decision that they wanted an active scientist as the Director. I think this is really important and I personally feel that this is a good situation, too. I can retain a close connection with the community, go to meetings, be engaged with the active community as one of them rather than as an administrator. And hear the needs of the community directly from the grassroots.

If you would have to name three aspects: what's best about EMBO?

Leptin: That's easy. First, the community of EMBO members and the wider EMBO community: the best researchers in the life sciences in Europe, clever, innovative, entertaining; willing to put in an effort to support the EMBO programmes. The members help with everything. They do the selection of the postdocs, they do the assessment of courses and workshop programmes, they often give us advice on ideas and plans. They counsel, supervise what we do and advise at what we do. That takes them a lot of time.

Second point?

Leptin: Second, the EMBO staff in Heidelberg: highly professional, intelligent, well-informed, fantastically dedicated. There's an extremely good atmosphere with everyone working toward a common goal. This is really special. I do not want to trash German universities but our staff is very, very good. They earn good salaries, so the best apply and we get excellent people. Our administration is very small, some 20 people who run the whole show.

And your third point?

Leptin: The mission of EMBO.

That is?

Leptin: To generally support the life sciences through money, workshops, training, fellowships to create a situation in Europe where life sciences can achieve top-notch work. We are building networks between researchers; for example, with our Young Investigator Programme we have created a cohort of some of the top people, who we've funded from an early stage, when they started their independent research careers. They know each other, support each other across research fields. That really enriches European life sciences. I'd also like to add that we have made significant improvements in our journals, making them more author-friendly.

Author-friendly? We were not aware that editors, generally speaking, are committed to the idea of such a service.

Leptin: [laughs] Okay, I'll give you an idea. We try to be fast. We are totally transparent. The referees' reports are published. So, referees have to make an effort and think carefully about what they write. The referees communicate with each other before the editors make the decision. This means that a referee with unjustified demands can be stopped at that stage. Also, an uncritical referee can be stopped. Additionally, referees are asked not to make ‘confidential remarks' to the editor. Everything they say about the paper should also be visible to the authors. We also cancelled that idiotic thing that a publication will be stopped only because somebody else publishes similar data at the very same time. Once you have submitted your paper to one of the EMBO journals, it will go its way. Our editors are always reachable, we don't hide their phone numbers. They attend scientific meetings, they know their communities and the community knows them.

Sounds good. How do the authors react?

Leptin: We receive a lot of positive feedback, they really appreciate what we do.

Did you have any particular ideas of implementing new projects or changes in EMBO, be it either scientific or administrative, when you started out?

Leptin: Some, of course. I wanted to establish better contacts with scientists and science management in the countries outside Europe that have begun successfully to build up their own science base of cutting-edge life science research. We are also working on improving our connections with policy makers in Brussels and elsewhere. And I intend to further expand the membership to include all of the modern life sciences.

This means the membership expansion that EMBO started along with its 50th anniversary in 2014?

Leptin: Right. EMBO was founded as an organisation for molecular biology only. For many years, it was small, consisting of about 200 members. Now, molecular biology is present everywhere in the life sciences, including, for example, forensics or food chemistry. But some fields are under-represented, such as neurobiology, hard core evolution or ecology. We felt it was not wise to insist on staying with the core only; EMBO should cover the whole breadth of the life sciences and speak for all biologists in Europe. So we assembled a group of experts to identify the leading scientists in these under-represented fields. A list was created, which was presented and those people were elected.

Now, looking back, did you succeed in implementing your intentions?

Leptin: The first two are still ongoing, both being goals that cannot be achieved overnight but require patience and consistent work. Regarding the widening of the membership, we have made the first big step. With regard to world-wide interactions, we have successfully established cooperation agreements with several Asian countries. I also started the Science Policy programme because I think, with its 1,500 expert scientists, EMBO is in an excellent position to provide analyses for European policy makers that are unbiased by national interests, and because it is becoming increasingly important that someone speaks up for the needs of researchers. The programme has run several workshops and produced analyses on a number of issues.

Most likely you have gained deep insight into the European scientific community and its science administration as a whole. Can EMBO influence political decisions in Brussels regarding science?

Leptin: We certainly hope so! We have established many close connections with policy organisations and individuals, in Brussels and elsewhere. In fact, we believe that in one instance we did help. EMBO is part of the ISE...

The Initiative for Science in Europe.

Leptin: Right. Building on an open letter sent by Nobel laureates, we recruited two of those laureates, who were also EMBO members, et cetera. A long list of signatures went to Brussels. Result: The science budget in Horizon2020, including that for the ERC, was better protected than it might otherwise have been. Here, I'd like to remind you that EMBO was initially responsible for even starting the ERC. But the Science Policy programme does many other things, too. We obtained grants from the Bosch foundation and ESF, to support workshops on gender quotas and human sequence data usage. EMBO has written up studies on genetically modified organisms that resulted from a workshop.

What impact had and still has the economic recession in European countries on the respective science?

Leptin: It's painful for many countries. In some, researchers have had to take up to 30% income reductions and fellowships for PhD students have been reduced or suspended. It is painful to see this because we know that it takes a long time to build up a top-notch research culture and infrastructure, and almost no time to destroy past achievements. While one can understand that some government expenses appear more important to citizens than research, it is very unfortunate that even some politicians seem to see research and education as a bit of a luxury that one can take or leave, rather than a critical investment for the future.

If you'd have to decide to fund one of two equally excellent projects – would the economic situation of science in the respective European countries be a criterion for your decision? In other words: would you tend to fund the project in the "poorer" country?

Leptin: All funding decisions are made by committees made up of EMBO members and they look at excellence of proposals first. However, they are always sympathetic to the situation of their colleagues in poorer countries. In some programmes it would be inappropriate to make ‘political' or strategic decisions that would not favour the best applicants. For example, postdoctoral fellowships should only be awarded based on the quality of the applicant and his or her proposal. In general, there really has to be a careful balance and we try to achieve that.

While it is important to help the poorer countries to achieve more, there is no point in directing funds for advanced research into a place where there is no political will to actively build up an excellent infrastructure and to support research, in such a way that it will eventually become competitive with that going on in richer countries. This does not only require a financial investment by the country but also a willingness to change administrative structures and the distribution of power in decision-making. A country or institution has to offer young researchers total intellectual and economic independence for their research, if they want to attract the best scientists.

Fortunately, many countries want change and are willing to make commitments; EMBO has a programme, the Strategic Development Installation Grants, that is one of our contributions to solve that special problem. It helps these countries to recruit the best young people to set up independent labs in their country and to create an environment for these researchers, in which they can accomplish their scientific goals. The government of the country makes a significant financial contribution and positions in this programme can only be offered to young scientists, who have been selected in a rigorous, highly competitive selection process run by EMBO.

You're a woman on a director's chair, so we feel obliged to ask at least one question regarding women in science: you are definitely female, successful in science and science policy; so you can be considered as one of the role models that in official reports are so important for young female scientists. Do you really sense that?

Leptin: I personally never thought of myself like that. I just did what I did and it didn't occur to me that it mattered what my sex was. Nowadays, it is of course impossible not to notice because we are constantly told about gender. I am not entirely convinced that this is always good. We need a little less agonising and a bit more of a naÏve approach; of just going for it and not thinking too much about all the potential problems one might face in one's career. That's just off-putting. The only way one can face the stress of a scientific career – and I wouldn't dream of saying there is no stress – is not to think about it.

In another interview you said "I only decided to become a scientist when I realised that I couldn't stand the idea of having to go to school for another 40 years!" Please guess: How long can you stand the idea of being EMBO Director?

Leptin: The reason I couldn't face teaching is that it looked to me to be too repetitive and I would have to be doing the same thing over and over again. Both research – whether at universities or research institutions – and the job at EMBO are completely different: new and interesting problems that need creative solutions every day. So, for neither job – here at EMBO or back in my lab in Cologne – is the question how long can I stand it but how long will I be allowed and how long will I be mentally capable of doing them.

Last Changed: 03.07.2014