Nobel Laureate provides insight into spawning research at the cutting edge

June 4, 2003

Brussels, 03 Jun 2003

'You can organise an environment that spawns research at the cutting edge but you cannot organise fundamental science,' said Professor Kurt Wüthrich, 2002 Nobel Laureate in chemistry, at the Swiss science briefing in Brussels on 2 June.

In an interview with CORDIS news, Professor Wüthrich outlined his personal experiences of working in the American and European research sectors, noting that in order to carry out 'excellent' research in either region, scientists must be given support, personal freedom, time and funding. However, scientists are facing certain organisational and funding barriers, particularly fundamental researchers whose work is not oriented towards concrete, practical goals.

'How can I tell you what I am going to find before I have found it?' asked Professor Wüthrich adding that, 'even when you get something done in fundamental science, it is difficult to measure the achievement and you usually have doubts as to it's validity [...]. It is also sometimes embarrassing for researchers to say what you are looking for as you may not find it.'

Professor Wüthrich received his Nobel Prize for the development of nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy that is used to determine the three-dimensional structure of biological macromolecules in solution. Since then, he and his research group have solved over 50 NMR structures of proteins and nucleic acids such as those that trigger infectious neurodegenerative diseases, like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) in humans.

Nowadays, Professor Wüthrich would have no difficulty in acquiring funding for his research in Europe, the US or Japan, but when he first started researching NMR spectroscopy, funding for this kind of research did not exist outside of Europe. 'If you couldn't prove it worked, you didn't get funding in the US,' explained the professor. 'Now that this kind of research has been successful, you are sure to get the money you need.'

Professor Wüthrich shares his time between the Swiss federal institute of technology (ETH) in Zürich, and the Cecil H. and Ida M. Green institute of geophysics and planetary physics at the Scripps research institute (TSRI) in California. Asked to compare research funding in the US and Europe, Professor Wüthrich said that American approach is based on an elitist system: 'it picks out those [researchers] that are very good, and throws a lot of money at them.'

However, he added that the European kitty is not comparable to the American pot of funds. For instance, with an amount of money similar to that provided by the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6), the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the US can fund smaller numbers of 'excellent' scientists over a five year period. If at the end of this period, no results are achieved, the scientist is no longer funded. However, enough scientists are invested in, thus cancelling out the risk of failure, claims Professor Wüthrich.

Although the majority of Professor Wüthrich's experiences have been in the US and Switzerland, he is aware of the nature of the EU framework programmes. Having participated in previous programmes, the professor believes that the funding framework was not developed in way that meets the needs of cutting edge science. 'Cutting edge science needs a non democratic arrangement so that the excellence of one scientist and his team can be maintained: I would not have succeeded if it was not for the 229 research assistants, technical staff, and students that I had working with me over the thirty year period of investigation into NMR,' he claimed.

It is often suggested that private investment into scientific research is higher in the US because private companies are more willing to make high risk investments. Although Professor Wüthrich admits that funding from private companies is more readily available, he has an explanation other than a willingness to take risks. 'They don't invest, they donate,' he said, adding that the US government has developed state planning arrangements and tax incentives that encourage private investment. 'That is what is lacking in Europe,' said the professor.

Asked whether there were elements of the American landscape that could be incorporated into the European research structure, Professor Wüthrich referred to the Swiss research landscape, which has, to some extent, developed a competitive element similar to that found within the US research framework. However, 'science in individual countries is embedded in the way of life of these countries: you cannot just transpose what works in one country to another.'

EU policy-makers have recognised the need to address the barriers and difficulties facing researchers, as outlined by the professor. Also attending the briefing, Director General of the Research DG Achilleas Mitsos said that the recently published action plan is expected to tackle the fundamental issue of under investment. By improving public support for research and innovation; redirecting public spending towards research and innovation; and improving framework conditions for private investment in research, Member States should be able increase research investment level to three per cent by 2010, claims Mr Mitsos.

In terms of providing a free area for research in Europe, Mr Mitsos pointed to the shift in philosophy of FP6 which seeks to attract the full participation of the best researchers, irrespective of their nationality. The programme has also sought to find the 'juste mileu' between the top-down and bottom-up approach to research, 'but I am not convinced we have achieved it yet,' warned Mr Mitsos. 'It is up to everyone involved to see how we can advance this way of working together.'

CORDIS RTD-NEWS / © European Communities

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