European life scientists to have new congress and lobby group

The new European Life Sciences Organization (ELSO) is starting with great hopes but a shoestring budget and few members.

By | August 31, 2000

LONDON, August 29 (Science Analysed). "Join up!" is the call by the first interdisciplinary European scientific society to have direct membership and independent policy-making. The European Life Sciences Organization, ELSO, which aims to create a broad, interdisciplinary European community — and to lobby on Brussels — in the molecular life sciences is to be launched at what is promised to be a major scientific congress this week in Geneva, Switzerland, 2–6 September. There is no congress in Europe "that catches the excitement of what's going on" in molecular life sciences, says ELSO's President-in-waiting Kai Simons, a Finnish molecular biologist working at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg. Simons, who was the inspiration of ELSO and is to be its first President, described its subject areas as "all those areas of trying to understand function in cells and tissues on a molecular level, such as molecular cell biology and molecular developmental biology." Simon's point of reference in the US seems to be the massive, annual meeting of the American Society of Cell Biology. Since the 1980s that meeting has shifted more and more towards molecular biology, said Simons.

"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 BioMed Central. "There's bound to be scepticism. ELSO hasn't done anything yet. We will have to earn our credibility," said Carol Featherstone, who is editing one of ELSO's products, the ESLO Gazette, a web-based magazine that will discuss issues and news in European life sciences, with its first issue this September.

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 Nature, many leading scientists in Europe seem to be unaware of the coming conference or of the idea of ELSO. In a straw poll, Guy du Thé, Professor at the Institut Pasteur, Paris, told BioMed Central he had never heard of the organization or conference. Nor had plant scientist Phillip Mullineaux of the John Innes Institute, Norwich, UK, nor immunologist Julian Ma of Guys Hospital, London.

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."

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