The European Life Scientist Organization: first impressions, lasting impressions

Publiceret Juli 2002

Whether in a new job or in a social setting, it is relatively easy to make a good first impression. What is more difficult is to be consistent – to fulfil your role well day after day, year after year, to be consistently a good colleague or friend, and to continue to be creative and flexible.

The European Life Scientist Organization (ELSO) made a good impression when it held its first international congress in Geneva in 2000[1,2]. Now, with a second, even more successful congress (held in Nice, France this summer) behind it, this "grass-roots" organization of European researchers is set to consolidate its activities and expand into more diverse and ambitious projects.

"Grass roots" means that ELSO is an organization of individual scientists – those involved with carrying out or directing research going on at the bench. Unlike alliances like the Federation of European Biochemical Societies (FEBS) or the European Cell Biology Organization (ECBO), its members are individual scientists, not national societies.

ELSO was created in 1999 by an ad hoc group of eminent molecular cell biologists[3] who saw the need for a Europe-wide society for molecular life scientists. Largely the brainchild of its current President, Finnish cell biologist Kai Simons, ELSO was modelled on the American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB). Like the ASCB, its main raison d'être, in the first instance, is to mount a large annual international conference on European soil covering cell biology and all of the life science disciplines that are now closely affiliated to it.

But ELSO plans to be more than simply a conference organizer. Its other important goal is to become a forum through which the molecular life science community in Europe can communicate both within itself and, perhaps more importantly, with national and European science policy makers. Just as the ASCB and other American scientific societies have had an important voice in influencing science funding and policy in the USA over the past decade, ELSO aims to represent the interests of its members to national and European governments. It can do so by bringing important issues into the public arena for debate and by lobbying the politicians who decide how much money will be spent, where and on which particular aspects of research and development. It is already doing so not only through the ELSO congresses but also through its e-magazine, The ELSO Gazette, and its Career Development Committee.

An annual meeting

Those of you who are lucky enough to participate in many scientific meetings and conferences around the globe may feel that there is no need for another large conference. But if we are to create a sense of community among European researchers, which is an essential prerequisite for a united voice, we must bring people together – young scientists even more so than their senior colleagues. The ELSO congresses aim to keep costs low (by avoiding expensive private conference organizers) so making them accessible to students and postdocs, and to create an environment that attracts young and more established researchers alike.

As well as an impressive array of international plenary speakers, the poster sessions are a central and crucial component of ELSO meetings. Poster sessions are the ideal place for researchers who are just setting out on their careers to present their work, and for group leaders and department heads to scout for new talent. A fruitful collaboration may begin through that interesting discussion with the young researcher across the aisle, or an invitation to apply for a new job could come from the big shot who stopped to pose you that difficult question.

In fact, there is a need for a large European meeting that is accessible to the broadest spectrum of our colleagues. An exciting annual meeting will provide an important stimulus for international collaboration, for the mixing of ideas and the mobility of individuals that is desperately needed, especially in the smaller European nations. For many European university departments and small institutes, it is simply not possible to provide a seminar programme that exposes their researchers to the best, broadest and most exciting molecular cell biology. The ELSO annual congress can help to fill this void and establish a stronger research base throughout Europe.

An annual meeting can also provide a much-needed environment for European suppliers to exhibit their products to an important audience. The exhibition halls of big meetings provide a useful service to industry as well as to scientists, and they offer an important source of revenue to support the meetings, which is in turn essential if the registration costs are to remain low, to allow many to attend. Until now, there has been little opportunity for companies in Europe to reach their customers through large meetings; there is nothing in Europe that approaches the fairs at the big American society meetings. Indeed, European companies tend to lack this culture of exhibiting at meetings.

To provide a better service to European companies and the European offices of international companies, ELSO is setting up an Industrial Board that will liase with these businesses to make future ELSO congresses more attractive for exhibitors.

The first two ELSO congresses have made an important first impression. The task now is to sustain that positive energy and develop it into a consistently impressive event that is a ?must? in the annual calendar of European molecular life scientists young and old alike.

The programme for the third congress, in Dresden (Germany) in 2003, is already on the drawing board. In 2004, the meeting is planned to return to Geneva and after that to rotate through these three European centres, making the administration more efficient than if it were held in a different city each year.

e-magazine

If ELSO is to maintain its momentum between each conference it needs a mechanism of communication and appropriate "executive" arms. The ELSO Gazette, a bimonthly electronic magazine, is ELSO's main means of communication[4]. The e-magazine reports on European news and events and carries features on various topics of relevance to molecular life scientists. It also publishes mini reviews of papers published by researchers in Europe (these written exclusively by European researchers) and longer reviews by European scientists.

The ELSO Gazette is also a hub for the exchange of ideas. In its leading Editorial it lays out opinion and policy, and in its Forum section it publishes "letters" from its readers. It provides a free searchable advertising service for jobs and for conferences and courses in Europe. And there are several other useful features like a short page of links to the "essential" journals and a searchable database of members' e-mail addresses.

The ELSO Gazette uses professional journalists to write the news and many of the feature articles. It is the only scientific magazine that is wholly focussed on European science.

The Career Development Committee

ELSO's first "executive arm" – the means through which it is attempting to lobby science policy makers, to provoke debate and to inform scientists about issues that influence their science and their careers – is its Career Development Committee (CDC).

The CDC is composed of a group of around a dozen scientists, from both junior and senior levels[5]. Its chairperson is Daniela Corda, the Head of the Department of Cell Biology and Oncology at Consorzio Mario Negri Sud, a privately funded research institute at Santa Maria Imbaro (Italy).

At the first open meeting of the CDC at ELSO2000 in Geneva, which was attended by over 100 scientists, the discussion was geared to how to improve the career structure for European scientists. One theme that emerged was that there is a gaping hole in the career ladder at the point where experienced and able postdoctoral researchers are looking to establish their own independent research groups. There is going to be a massive shortfall in the number of independent group leaders in many European countries as the wave of researchers hired in the 1960s and 1970s come up to retirement. And at the moment Europe is doing little to train junior researchers to fill these posts.

At a time when the European Commission's sixth Framework Programme (FP6) was being drafted in 2001, the CDC decided to lobby those national members of the European Parliament (MEPs) who sit on the Committee on Industry, External Trade, Research and Energy – the committee that is largely responsible for parliamentary approval for the framework programme as laid out by the Commission. The CDC informed ELSO's members about the issues at stake, and supplied each member with the name and address of his or her relevant national MEPs as well as an example letter, urging the MEPs to support funding for a "Career Development Award" in FP6.

This award, the CDC described, could be based on the successful national grants operating in Switzerland, Germany and the UK to fund talented senior postdocs in tenure-track positions that allow them to establish their first independent research team. ELSO was not the only organization to propose this idea – the Max Planck Society and others were pushing similar ideas.

At ELSO 2002 in Nice, the CDC this time brought together top-level policy makers from the European Commission, the Human Frontiers Science Programme and the European Molecular Biology Organization to describe new funding opportunities for postdocs and junior independent scientists. In this meeting, which drew a massive audience of around 400 people, Raffaele Liberali of the Commission's Directorate General for Research talked about the final plans for FP6. We do not know how much influence the ELSO CDC's campaign had on FP6, but what Liberali described to us is a much more deliberate attempt by the Commission to provide coherent funding from graduate student to independent group leader level, including grants for junior group leaders that come very close to the Career Development Awards ELSO was pushing for.

The CDC will continue its lobbying activities whenever it feels it can wield an influence with science policy makers and politicians, whether in Brussels or at the national level.

Another of the CDC's activities is to award a prize for a junior independent researcher in Europe at each of its meetings. The winner should normally be within ten years of obtaining his or her PhD, must be working in Europe and must have spent a significant part of their career in Europe. This Early Career Award at ELSO 2000 went to Elisa Izaurralde from the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg (Germany), and this year was awarded to Maria Blasco of the National Centre of Biotechnology in Madrid (Spain).

Important issues

ELSO is just starting out. The attendance and atmosphere at the first two meetings have shown the need for a large congress on European soil, and demonstrated that ELSO is able to mount an exciting, relevant and successful event. But there is a long way to go to before ELSO becomes the voice in Europe that represents all molecular life scientists.

We need to learn how best to reach those who walk the corridors of power and make them listen to us. We need to reach the very many molecular life scientists in Europe who do not yet know about the organization. And we need to learn how to get these scientists talking – at the ELSO meetings, through the CDC and in the pages and forum space of The ELSO Gazette. We need to find a way to get the grass-roots scientists in all the nations of Europe to care about their colleagues in other countries and in other disciplines, and to believe that small actions on their behalf can make a big difference to the overall environment for science in Europe.

There are many things to talk about:

  • Career structures and opportunities for young researchers across Europe
  • Harmonising national degree structures and career structures to allow European countries to share their talents and promote Europe-wide excellence
  • How to convince the politicians of the importance of curiosity-driven basic research for economic growth
  • Retaining women in science and promoting them beyond the "glass ceiling"
  • How to build mobility into European science allowing the mixing and communication that creates an exciting research environment and maximises our scientific potential
  • How to attract young people into this field
  • How best to integrate the scientists from those states that will join the European Union in the coming years.

These are European issues that only a European organization with a membership drawn from the whole of Europe can begin to approach. ELSO is now on the map. It has proved that the large international congress formula can work in Europe. From this year the congress will be an annual gathering of growing importance for scientists and policy makers in Europe. The ELSO Gazette is now an established on-line magazine that is set to grow into a more important mouthpiece for ELSO and a forum for discussion. Its committee for career development is beginning to define the types of issues it needs to tackle and learning how best to lobby policy makers and politicians.

ELSO is not a threat to the national scientific societies. On the contrary, it should collaborate and synergise with them. But most of all, ELSO needs the support of those individual scientists it hopes to represent. If you share our vision of a more exciting environment for life science research and our ambition to contribute, as individuals, to science policy making in Europe, you should become a member of ELSO. You can participate in ELSO by registering to receive the e-mailed Table of Contents of The ELSO Gazette[4], by reading the new issues and perhaps contributing to the discussion forum. You can find out more about ELSO through its web site[3]. And, of course, you should make sure you attend the third ELSO meeting in Dresden 2003 (20-24 September). Put it in your diary now!

References

  1. Call to arms for life scientists. Robert Koenig, Science (15 September issue) 289 (2000) p. 1859
  2. ELSO ? not just another meeting. (Editorial) Nat. Cell Biol. (November issue) 2 (2000) p. E197
  3. About ELSO. http://www.elso.org/index.php?id=about
  4. The ELSO Gazette, e-magazine of the European Life Scientist Organization. http://www.the-elso-gazette.org
  5. ELSO Career Development. http://www.elso.org/index.php?id=career