European Molecular Biology Organisation

Publiceret Januar 2003

Approximately 40 years ago, Europe was a different continent to the one that we know today. It is research had become financially dependent on support from the United States as it still struggled to recover after the devastation of World War II. Then, in 1962, the Cuban crisis errupted and scientists in Europe realised that support from America was not an automatic event. It was necessary for European science to take responsibility for its own future.

It happened that a number of scientists in Europe had already perceived this requirement. A series of different initiatives had been discussed and plotted during the late fifties that were designed to create an important new laboratory in Europe. The central laboratory would focus on the newly defined area of molecular biology. Although the term was new, and indeed contested with some preferring to refer to this concept as fundamental biology, it became a rallying call for many who wished to break down some of the barriers between the disciplines and departments in the university sector and to initiate horizontal movement of scientists who wished to achieve a description of biological phenomena at a mechanistic and ultimately molecular level. The precision of chemistry, physics and mathematics would be added to the descriptive aspects of botany and zoology. At one level, this was merely an expansion of biochemistry, at another it added a totally new philosophical dimension.

It was in this context that EMBO, the European Molecular Biology Organization, came into being. The leaders of CERN, an international laboratory based in Geneva that focussed on high energy physics, saw that biology would be the new frontier, and that molecular biology would be its flagship. EMBO was formally incorporated as an association in 1964 but grew from discussions, often passionate, about how best to achieve a change both in the way that biology was performed and the way that Europe worked.  From the start EMBO was a pan-European organization, one that thought internationally rather than nationally and one that removed barriers between disciplines rather than accentuated them. The first EMBO Council established two committees; one was to consider the roads that should be followed in order to create a central European laboratory, the other was to identify mechanisms that could build on the rather sparse strengths that were dispersed throughout various institutes in Europe and create a network of training and interaction that would foster and strengthen European science in this important new area.  The dispersed activities were more easy to get started through funding from the Volkswagen Foundation. The early successes that were achieved in actions such as the EMBO workshops, EMBO practical courses and EMBO fellowships sent a clear signal throughout Europe that this organization had much to contribute. The EMBO Council, however, was mindful that it had two goals and continued in its efforts to bring to fruition the dream of having a central European laboratory. This took some time. As a first step, the networked activities of EMBO succeeded in convincing governments, including Denmark, that this was a unique opportunity for Europe that deserved intergovernmental support.  The European Molecular Biology Conference was created in 1970 and one of its first agenda items was to consider the proposal by the EMBO Council that a European Molecular Biology Laboratory should be established. This goal was achieved in 1974.

The role of Danish scientists during the early days of EMBO were crucial. Ole Maaløe was a founding member of the EMBO Council 1963-1970 and member of the Fellowship Committee 1965-1968. Niels Kjeldgaard was Secretary General from 1975-1980, served on the Fellowship Committee 1969-1974 and was a Council Member 1981-1986. From 1973-1978, Kjeld Marcker served on the EMBO Council and Kaspar von Meyenburg (1985-1987), and Diter von Wettstein (1977-1982) both served on the Course Committee. Today he also audits our finances on behalf of the EMBO members. The Danish involvement in EMBO, therefore, has been continuous and important. Today this tradition has continued with Prof. Julio Celis being the current, very active President of the EMBC and Dr. Brian Clark being a member of the EMBO Council having previously been a member of the Fellowship Committee from 1976 - 1979.

EMBO continues in its crucial role as a guarantor of quality in research activities throughout Europe. At a practical level, the programme that was initiated in 1964 of fellowships, courses and workshops has been maintained, consolidated and expanded. These programmes are of particular importance to the scientific community at all stages in their careers. We would encourage more Danish participation in all of these actions. Short-term fellowships are available throughout the year and allow scientists to travel to another laboratory in Europe to receive support for a three-month period. The decision making process is rapid and scientists at all stages in their career can benefit from these fellowships. The postdoctoral Long Term Fellowship Scheme is more competitive but numerically one of the most significant in Europe. There are two closing dates on February 15th and August 15th and of particular importance is the fact that the fellowships can be held anywhere in the world. Furthermore, scientists can come to Denmark from any place in the world if successful in their application for an EMBO Long Term Fellowship. 

Each year scientists throughout Europe organize EMBO practical courses and workshops on topics that are relevant to the latest developments in molecular biology. Some of these are, of course, held in Denmark and this is to be encouraged. Danish scientists, again at all stages in their career, can benefit from participating in this well-established programme. The tradition in EMBO is that administration is light and efficient and sensitive to the needs of the scientific community.  In this way, responses are obtained rapidly and actions can be followed up with in days of the decision to support a particular applicant having been made. 

More recently EMBO has added to its activities a Young Investigator Programme in which the brightest young researchers in Europe, who have just started their own independent laboratory, are selected in a competitive manner and then fostered as examples for researchers throughout Europe. One of the first EMBO Young Investigators was Poul Nissen at Aarhus University. 

The initial concepts of EMBO were focussed particularly internally in Europe. Today new opportunities and demands are placed on EMBO and responding to these, an EMBO World Programme has been established. In addition to raising the profile of European science throughout the world through the organization of courses and lectures on all continents, the EMBO World Programme now also has a fellowship component that is designed to increase interactions between scientists throughout the world and their European colleagues. In the near future it is hoped to offer a screening service that will provide an assessment based on local information, of the quality of scientists from the emerging economies who apply for positions in Europe.

When EMBO was founded, the question of the publication of articles was simple. There were few relevant journals and the European researchers used the Journal of Molecular Biology as a favoured publication. With time however, EMBO noticed the impact of European journals was diminished and perceived that there was a necessity to increase the visibility of European science and allow it to be appreciated.  Initially, in 1981, EMBO founded the EMBO Journal and in 2000 established a new format journal called EMBOreports. Both have achieved great success. In parallel, in recent years, EMBO has been very active in developing electronic media and E-BioSci, which is currently at a prototype stage,  will deliver new possibilities to the scientific community, it will allow them to have more ready access to the literature and to use their searches as a discovery tool and an extension of their research rather than simply as a way of finding a relevant article. 

Science has also changed since the 60's in that it is now essential that both the threats and promises of molecular biology and bioscience research are understood by the general public.  Over five years ago EMBO established a Science and Society Committee and has a wide range of activities directed towards encouraging scientists to engage in discussions with the general public and to respond to the questions which come from the non-scientific tax payers on whom ultimately EMBO's activities are dependent.

The range of EMBO's activities are, in fact, more extensive than those that have been highlighted. For information on all EMBO activities, please visit the EMBO website, www.EMBO.org. For instance also, they include a particular focus on the career problems associated with the time that is required to establish a family (which is being addressed by the Re-start Fellowship Programme), discussions on the career structure for life scientists, assessment of the impact of the new partnerships that are established between industry and academia, reviewing of national scientific programmes, etc. etc. However, the most ambitious target of EMBO currently has been to work with others to deliver a European Research Council.  EMBO believes that it is timely, and necessary if Europe is to become a leading knowledge-based economy, to invest in the generation of knowledge in a way that has not been done heretofore. The European Research Council, which would focus on basic research, was a particular focal point of the Danish presidency of the EU. The impetus that Denmark gave at that time could be crucial and EMBO appreciates very much the efforts that were made in this context.  As in all novel developments it requires patience and planning to achieve a goal that is beneficial. That was the case back in the ?50?s and ?60?s which gave rise to the establishment of EMBO. It is still true today as we again identify new instruments that are needed in order to make European science, and through it, the European economies, stronger and more robust in the future.

In summary therefore, the story of EMBO is one that shows a dynamic reaction to changing circumstances, a consistent contribution by leading scientists throughout Europe to an ideal which is both European and quality -based, and a willingness to face the challenges that a changing scientific, social and economic world present. It is a resource at the service of the scientific community. Hopefully Danish scientists at all stages of their careers will continue to use and contribute to its development.