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Pan-European network allows access to national cutting-edge biology facilities. Paul Jump reports

March 29, 2012

Credit: Diamond Light Source
Have a look: structural biologists whose countries join a sharing arrangement will be able to access facilities such as the Diamond Light Source and others across Europe

"Big science" has long been a synonym for giant international physics projects such as the Large Hadron Collider at Cern in Switzerland.

But a new pan-European network of structural biology facilities called Instruct indicates that countries are also realising that state-of-the-art biology research could create black holes in their science budgets unless they work together.

David Stuart, Medical Research Council professor of structural biology at the University of Oxford and director of the Instruct network, pointed out that biology research accounted for about half the work done in recent years at large synchrotron particle accelerators - such as the Diamond Light Source at the UK's Harwell Science and Innovation Campus - despite the facilities being built with physicists in mind.

"That has been an eye-opener. It demonstrates that if you have specialist technology and you make it available in a well-supported centre you can really have a big impact on the scientific output because it is very energising for the community to know that you don't need to be a massive, heavily funded institute to be able to get access to the best kit around," he said.

The Diamond Light Source is part of one of the 15 state-of-the-art facilities to which researchers across Europe will now have access under the Instruct arrangements. These have been consciously modelled on what Dennis Bamford, head of Instruct's Centre for Virus Production at the University of Helsinki, called "very disciplined" procedures developed for synchrotrons by "logical physics people".

The European Union contributed €4.5 million (£3.75 million) to the establishment of Instruct through the European Strategy Forum for Research Infrastructures. But in common with the other nine biomedical infrastructure projects seeded in this way, running costs must be met from national sources. In Instruct's case, this will be raised by subscription fees from individual countries that want their researchers to have access to the facilities.

Professor Bamford admitted that the advantages of international pooling were especially clear-cut for smaller countries such as Finland that would never be in a position to build their own large facilities.

Flat fee hurdle

But he regretted that the network had decided - at least initially - to charge every country the same membership fee, €50,000, rather than weighting it according to size.

"The big countries felt they have built these facilities and they don't want to pay twice," he said. "It is hard to say what is more fair, but it is just impossible for small countries with only a few groups to tell their politicians they should pay the same annual fee as Germany."

In Finland's case, Professor Bamford said, he had managed to negotiate a "deal" whereby the country could share the cost of memberships with whichever of the Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania also decided to join. Even so, he was still embroiled in a war of attrition with Finnish government bureaucracy to extract the "pretty cheap" fee.

Nor, it seems, is he alone. Instruct officially launched at the end of last month with the hope that all European countries will join, either individually or as regional groups. But so far only eight have signed up: the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Israel, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal and the UK.

The UK's subscription fee was paid by the Medical Research Council, but Professor Stuart said that structural biologists in countries lacking an equivalent funding body have been obliged to approach an eclectic array of national and regional agencies and ministries.

Professor Bamford said his government would be "stupid" not to fund Finnish membership. Such a move would mean Finnish researchers being unable to access other facilities in the network even as foreign scientists made use of the Helsinki centre's expertise in preparing virus samples for structural analysis.

Central choices

The nature and number of the facilities that form the network was chosen purely on the basis of what Instruct's various disciplinary working groups deemed necessary to carry out cutting-edge research in structural biology. The centres that would fulfil each designated role were selected on merit after an open call for applications.

Seven countries host at least one of the 15 centres, with five in Germany and three in the UK - based at Harwell and the University of Oxford.

The centres, which will be regularly evaluated to make sure that their facilities are still the most scientifically useful, will be expected to devote no more than 20 per cent of their time to hosting Instruct researchers.

Professor Stuart admitted that hosting external researchers would be "hard work" because visitors were likely to require considerable technical support in using the centres' specialist facilities. Also, the centres will not receive any Instruct funding beyond a small amount for consumables used during the visits.

However, he said, the exposure of the centres' staff to "the best groups around Europe" could only be of benefit - not least because the high level of collaboration required would entitle them to be listed as authors on any resulting papers.

An association with Instruct was also a "badge of quality", which put centres in a stronger position to argue for national funding, Professor Stuart added.

Access to Instruct facilities will be granted on the basis of the scientific merit of applications and the importance of the facilities to conducting the envisaged project.

This merit-based approach, Professor Stuart said, would tend to favour traditional scientific powers such as the UK, Germany and France - although he hoped that, in the long term, opening the Continent's top facilities to researchers from weaker countries would eventually bring those nations up to "cutting-edge" standards.

Swapping serendipity for structure

Of course, scientists have long collaborated with international colleagues on an ad hoc basis.

Professor Bamford, for instance, has been collaborating with Professor Stuart for nearly 20 years. However, like many others in the scientific community, this relationship grew out of a chance encounter at a conference. According to Professor Bamford, the Instruct website - on which structural biologists can create a profile as well as browse job adverts and discussion forums - will make collaboration much more organised and effective.

"Now you will be able to see all the facilities available upfront. You know who the experts are and where they are," he said.

Countries have initially been asked to sign up to Instruct for only two years, but formal collaboration has already been growing in structural biology for about a decade and professors Stuart and Bamford both saw Instruct as part of a long-term trajectory towards greater pan-European collaboration.

"It might be that the next generation will be so demanding that even the large countries won't want to [build new facilities] alone," Professor Bamford said.

Professor Stuart agreed that more coordination was highly likely, not just on access to facilities but also, ultimately, on their construction.

"It may not be in the genes of scientists to take that approach, but they can't avoid the logic of it in the end," he said.

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