The launch of a new partnership between EMBO and India made me think about what international connections mean to European research.
One of the pleasures of being a research scientist is the opportunity to travel and explore different parts of the world. I’ve visited many countries and I have friends living and working all over, from LA to Tokyo. But this was my first trip to India. I was part of a delegation from EMBO and we were in India to celebrate the launch of a new bioscience partnership in which India has become an associate member of EMBO.
Even before the plane touched down I knew we had reached Mumbai. As we descended, the smell of smoke and traffic fumes started to spread through the cabin. The sensory overload continued throughout the week I was there. I soon realised that most of the things I’d heard and read about India were true and sometimes real life outdid the clichés. The sights, sounds, colour were as vivid as I could hope. The food is outstanding and the cities as crowded and as frenetic as I’d been led to believe, and the traffic… I’m still too traumatised to talk about the driving. But mostly what I remember from the trip are the people I met and their excitement and enthusiasm for science.
We went to biology research institutes in each city we visited and from the subtropics of Bangalore to the foothills of the Himalayas in Chandigarh we gave our research seminars to full lecture theatres. I’d like to think that some of the audience had come to hear me but I expect they were there for Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard who, speaking after me, talked about her latest work on pigmentation patterning in zebrafish and the ‘Evolution of beauty’.
Everywhere, from long established institutes, such as the Tata Institute in Mumbai, to newer places, such as NCBS and the IISERs, it was evident that research, and biology in particular, is on the rise. Student programmes are expanding, more investigators are being recruited and new buildings constructed. That’s not to say we didn’t hear complaints. A recurring theme were delays and increased expense of reagents compared to Europe and the US, and as in many other countries, there was concern about the balance of funding allocated to basic and translational research. Nevertheless, what most people wanted to talk about was their research and to ask us questions about our work.
Before the trip colleagues had asked me why India, 4000 miles away from Europe, was becoming a member of EMBO. To be honest, I also wondered the same. But I began to understand the reason as I travelled between research institutes. EMBO was conceived and established in the 1960s and 70s, during the Cold War. Its mission was not only to support and strengthen the new field of molecular biology but also to promote cooperation and exchange between European countries. The geopolitics have changed over the last 40-50 years but I think the importance of EMBO’s mission remains. Despite its small size and budget, EMBO has been enormously influential for biology in Europe. I think this is in large part down to EMBO’s operating principles: funding is focused on promoting scientific exchange and the quality of the science is the only thing that counts.
As I talked to PhD and Masters students and learned about the research at various institutes I realised the potential of some of EMBO’s programmes. I expect that EMBO long term fellows, with their two years post-doc funding, will still mostly result in newly graduated Indian students moving to European labs, rather than the other way round, at least for the time being. However, for other programmes I anticipate there will be increasing two way traffic. Short term fellowships, which provide funding for a stay of up to three months in a host lab in order to initiate or continue a collaboration, will allow European based scientists to visit labs in India and vice versa, establishing new connections and undertaking projects not possible in their home labs. Likewise I hope the Courses & Workshop programme, which supports small focused scientific conferences and practical courses, leads to more cutting edge meetings in India that introduce further European scientists (and the rest of the world) to the range and quality of research now going on in India. And I don’t expect it to be long before we see EMBO Young Investigators with their labs in India. EMBO’s insistence that excellence as the only criterion for the success of a funding application offers a clear standard to all applicants, European and Indian alike, and a clear signal of quality when successful. I am sure that these types of exchanges will not only benefit bioscience in India but also strengthen and advance research in Europe. If the initiative pays off, and I hope it does, it will have been a significant boost to EMBO’s objective of promoting international cooperation while supporting high quality science. Time will tell and I look forward to seeing the results.
The trip also made me reflect on science in Europe. Heading home after the exhilarating and intense tour I worried that as researchers we take for granted that science is global and we assume that the free exchange of ideas and mobility of people is a given. But we shouldn’t be complacent about this. In the UK the prospect of a vote on membership of the EU is looming and in many countries distinctly more isolationist and nationalistic politics seem to be gaining ground. This trip convinced me that we need to be more cooperative not more insular and I hope that organisations such as EMBO continue to demonstrate that openness is win-win for those involved; both sides benefit from cooperation and interaction. On a personal level I have many memories of a hugely enjoyable trip, many new friends and a much deeper knowledge of research in India. I hope to be back soon and I also hope, almost certainly in vain, that next time I visit the driving will have improved.
For the official details of the India-EMBO partnership see:
And for details of the India-EMBO symposia: