LONDON, August 29 (
"Of course, there are organizations like FEBS [the Federation of European Biologists] that have meetings," Simons admits. "They were very important once, but the problem is the fact that they are a federation of national societies. They have to change their meeting place from one member state to the other. So they might have a great meeting in Manchester, say, and then they have a meeting, say, in Romania." But Simons believes good, multidisciplinary meetings are essential especially for young talents in peripheral European countries. "I know it from my own experience in Finland," he said, "This is where you learn what science is." But many young European scientists never make it to the big American meetings. ELSO will aim to tap this potential for growth in European science.
But one leading European neurologist, who did not want to be named, bemoaned ELSO as a further proliferation of societies. "Do you know there are two societies in my area and they only exist because the officers of one hate the officers of the other," he told
The ELSO officials — all but one unpaid or part-time — a Council of eight, two conference organisers, a secretary-general and an administrator — are full of hope and imagination, but clearly have a hard task before them. Despite conference planning going back more than two years, and at least two news articles in
But once they do learn of it, most scientists become very supportive of ELSO's goals. For example, after some thought, Julian Ma said "It's no longer good enough to think of plant cells, bacterial cells, mammalian cells as separate entities. We're talking about cell biology here. All we know now suggests that we specialists learn a lot from each other. So I think ELSO will be very important."
But why is it necessary to create a European organization, when travel across the Atlantic is cheap and easy? "I think it works on several levels," said Julian Ma. First of all there's prestige. "The Americans organize very good meetings, but they tend to dominate them, and the perception arises that the Americans are at a much higher level — but that's clearly not true in many areas. For example, plant biology. There's a big division, where in the US there's a strong focus on industry, and here on academics in universities. That's a fundamental difference, because we are asking questions of basic science, while the Americans are pushing through to products." And at a second level "we've got to attract young people to meetings." And local means easier attendance.
ELSO also plans to form a coordinated lobby on the European Commission in Brussels — and European Parliament in Strasbourg — on issues of interest to the life sciences community in Europe. There has been great concern among fundamental scientists that the last round of European research grants, called 'Framework Five', was so heavily focused on application that many major groups lost their grants. "I've personally suffered from this concentration on goal-oriented in Framework Five," said Ma, who is otherwise very supportive of Brussels in its work in creating a European community of life scientists through Frameworks Three, Four and Five. But "the only way you can change this is to have a place for a European lobby. At the moment it's coming from small isolated groups. The ELSO could be an important development and I think the European Commission would welcome it."