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  SCIENCE AND SOCIETY  -  The EMBO and its many activities

In scientific circles, everybody knows about the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) grants, from which thousands of students and researchers have benefited over the years, as well as its prestigious publications, such as The EMBO Journal. Perhaps less well known is its Science and Society programme, centred on dialogue between researchers and scientists on the implications of the life sciences for society.

Workshops for teachers and debates.
Workshops for teachers and debates.
The programme was born at a turning point in the EMBO’s history. Founded in 1964 as a kind of learned society, then strengthened in1969 with the launch of the European Molecular Biology Conference – an intergovernmental meeting of the 24 member states with which it worked in close co-operation – the EMBO played a pioneering role in the development of molecular biology in Europe. In the 1970s, this was almost virgin territory and the EMBO initiatives set the example in all fields, be it mobility, infrastructure or training. As Frank Gannon, EMBO Executive Director, wrote in the preface to the 2004 activity report: “We played a pioneering role in expressing our values of excellence and internationalism in our programmes to support the mobility of researchers. Today, these values are also reflected in other programmes, such as Marie Curie or Human Frontier. In the interim, changes in the scientific environment have led us to rethink our action.” This need to reorientate the EMBO’s action coincided with the intensification of the debate on the revolution in the life sciences, focusing on subjects such as cloning, GMOs and stem cells.

Internationalism and excellence
Without abandoning its initial mission of providing support for researchers, in 1998 the EMBO launched a science and society programme. “We are working on the debates born of developments in all areas of the life sciences, and not just in molecular biology in the strictest sense of the term. This is because molecular biology is now present throughout virtually the whole biology sector, if only as a technique,” explains Andrew Moore, Programme Director. Internationalism and excellence: these two values at the centre of the EMBO culture were quickly applied in this new field. Internationalism is reflected in the regular multidisciplinary conferences held in Heidelberg on subjects at the heart of the European public debate, such as genetics and determinism, ageing, or science and security, as well in the laboratory workshops which enable biology teachers from all the EMBO member countries to train in the concepts of molecular biology. Some 750 teachers benefited from this experience in 2003 and 2004, thus helping make the ‘DNA sciences’ better known to young people.

As to excellence, this is represented in the launch of two annual competitions: one to reward the best work of popularisation and the other the best initiative in communication in the life sciences. “The international training courses for biology teachers are being expanded, while winners of the EMBO prize for communication in the life sciences have been nominated for the Descartes prize for science communication set up by the European Commission,” explains Andrew Moore, who is pleased to see others picking up in this way on the pioneering initiatives of the programme he runs. Another example of excellence is the science and society section in EMBO reports, a journal with a praiseworthy impact.(1) This section features opinions, analyses, book reviews and interviews, which are not usually found in scientific publications.  

At the crossroads of countries and professions
"This programme seeks to act as a catalyst, a facilitator enabling people from different worlds to come together. Secondary school teachers and biologists talk at the introductory courses about molecular biology, researchers from various disciplines debate between themselves and with the general public at the Heidelberg conferences, and scientists and journalists meet at the media workshops which are experiencing growing success,” explains Andrew Moore. It is on the basis of this role as “crossroads between countries as well as professions” that, over the coming years, the programme plans to increase its contribution to the European public debate. After an initial communication on the subject of the use of animals in research, they are currently looking at the issue of stem cells.



Science and the pen
Edwin Rydberg
Edwin Rydberg
2005 winner of the EMBO prize for the best piece of science writing intended for a non-scientific audience, Edwin Rydberg is a 35-year-old Canadian biochemist. He is currently engaged in research on the hepatitis C virus at the Istituto di Ricerche di Biologia Molecolare P. Angeletti, near Rome. RTD info put three questions to him.

How did you come to write about science? 
I started to write short poems while working on my thesis in Canada, at an age when your emotions can run very high. Later, when doing a post-doctorate in Israel, I wrote a number of scientific texts. The next step was quite naturally to bring the two together by writing about science. The EMBO prize acted as an incentive. 

In Through the illusions(2) you present a discussion between a schizophrenic patient, his wife and his doctor. Did schizophrenia feature in your research work? 
Indirectly. While I was at the Wiessman Institute in Israel I became interested in the subunit alpha 7 of the acetylcholine receptor (a brain neuromediator). The malfunctioning of this receptor is linked to certain forms of schizophrenia. Nicotine also attaches itself to this same alpha 7 subunit. Hence the hypothesis, which I depict in Through the illusions, of a kind of self-medication for schizophrenics through smoking, thereby compensating with nicotine for the genetic deficiencies of the alpha 7 receptor. For me this was a fascinating example of how biology influences our lives.

Do you believe literature can help us to understand science?
I would be tempted to say yes, but while also stressing all the difficulties. The first is that if the story is gripping, the reader will be tempted to skip the scientific content. Of course, if it isn’t gripping, nobody will read it to the end anyway. That is why I favour the short story as a format. This enables the writer to be interesting and instructive by presenting the human aspect of a scientific problem or bioethical dilemma, but without losing the reader in details. A reader who is interested in the scientific problem can then go off and find out more scientific information for himself while another less-motivated reader will at least have been made aware of the issue. The second problem is to find a publisher. A good story about science is first and foremost a good story, promoted as such, and only secondarily a story about science. This can be to the detriment of the scientific pertinence of the story.



(1) The impact factor measures the number of times an article published in a scientific journal is cited by other articles within a year of its publication. In this case the impact factor is 7.6.
(2) Through the illusions can be read on the EMBO site: www.embo.org/awards/writing.html [ http://www.embo.org/awards/writing.html ]


  Young people have their say  
  What are the risks and benefits of a possible transformation of man by technology? This vast question – which covers everything from the prenatal selection of embryos to aesthetic surgery, including genetic engineering and cybertechnologies (the implanting of electronic devices in the body) – was put to a group of Danish adolescents. Rather than inviting scientists, philosophers or other ‘professional thinkers’ – or simply members of the public, which is common practice in Denmark – the Danish Council of Ethics (DCE) had the idea of inviting 17 high-school students, aged around 15, to debate the subject over a 48-hour period, on 10 and 11 March 2003. Before the debates they received copies of a small guide entitled The perfect person? Statement on the biotechnological transformation of people, by way of introduction. “Fascination with the subject sparked a lively debate,” notes the DCE, which explains that it organised the event "because young people are particularly imaginative and able to make a critical evaluation of the amazing possibilities available”.

The country’s schools and also some leading politicians subsequently received a summary of the ideas this two-day forum had produced. Like any debate, it generated comments of all kinds, some measured and others excessive. When considering the possibility of selecting embryos, one participant declared that “there must be a reason why we were created as we are. If people are not prepared to risk having a Down’s syndrome or dyslexic child, I do not believe they should have children at all.” On the subject of immigrants wanting to have nose surgery so as to have a more ‘European’ nose, another teenager remarked that “the problem is not the nose of this new Dane. The problem is the way society looks at this nose. Allowing him to have the operation is to take the easy way out.” The experience proved sufficiently rewarding to be repeated in 2005, a new group of young people this time discussing ethics and stem cells. Details of the debates are available on the internet at: http://www.etiskraad.dk/sw316.asp

 


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