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The "European Molecular Biology Laboratory" Elite Institute in Heidelberg

By Martin Spiewak

Internationalism without competitive pressure - the Heidelberg EMBL elite institute has a European recipe for success.

If you were to pass through the laboratories, you would observe the young faces deep in concentration. Studying the names of the scientists in any research group, you would notice that hardly any two of them come from the same country. A look at the technical equipment, too, would help you understand what makes this institute one of the top centres in the field of biosciences. From the electron microscope to the grey machines for decoding genetic information, all the technology here is state-of-the-art.

But when developmental biologist Jochen Wittbrodt wants to explain to visitors the secret behind the success of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL), he likes to take them to the cafeteria. "This is the heart of the institute. This is where most of the scientific problems are solved," he says. He goes on to explain that four to five of his largest research projects were born here. You arrange to meet, "a short e-mail is all you need," he says, and a short while later you're sitting together with a cappuccino in front of you and the ideas are flowing to and fro.

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Gallery: The European Molecular Biology Laboratory Gallery: The European Molecular Biology Laboratory Gallery: The European Molecular Biology Laboratory

All that's needed to advance scientific progress one small step further is a chance meeting in the queue at the till. That's where Wittbrodt explained to a colleague about the new possibility of observing animal embryos under the microscope in 3D. It would be even better, he pondered, if it were possible to do this with living organisms. "As we were paying, we solved the problem," Wittbrodt recalls. His colleague, the biophysicist Ernst Stelzer, had a blueprint for just such a piece of optical equipment in his drawer - it was just that no one had been interested in it before. The conversation led to a project, and the project to a patent and various scientific publications, including in Science.

Encounters like this are common at the EMBL. The place itself is conducive to it. Some 500 researchers from Europe and the rest of the world work on the most important bioscience questions in a labyrinthine building complex on a wooded hill above Heidelberg - a kind of scientific "magic mountain" that no one really needs to leave, except to sleep. The food is good, the technical equipment and support personnel excellent. And those who want to see a new face once in a while attend a lecture by one of the guest scientists who make the pilgrimage up here in their dozens every month. They come because the EMBL is one of the world's most reputable research institutes for molecular biology. Founded in the mid-seventies in order to break the Americans' dominance in this dynamic field, today it is right up there with the big names - Harvard, Stanford or the biocentre at Cold Spring Harbour. It is a shining example of what can be achieved in Europe when countries put their national vanity aside and bundle their strengths. No other European institute has more publications to its name in the field of life sciences.

The institute owes its success to certain distinctive characteristics. Everyone who comes to the EMBL knows from the start that they will have to leave again after a maximum of nine years. Only very few are given a position for life. The rest return to their home or another country, having gained a first-class research reputation and excellent contacts. "We are a service organisation," says Institute Director Iain Mattaj with typical British understatement. "We develop the stars of tomorrow for our member countries."

This unique institutional modesty has meant that, outside the field of biomedicine, only a few people know what the letters EMBL stand for. Hardly anyone knows that the only German winner of the Nobel Prize for Medicine, Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard, carried out the seminal genetic studies for which she was later internationally honoured here at Boxberg. Or that 25 Max Planck Institute directors began their scientific careers here.

Germany is not the only country to have benefited from the Heidelberg institute. Other countries to profit include Spain. The organisers of this year's ESOF conference had a disproportionately large number of employees working at the EMBL a few years ago. Now in senior positions in Barcelona, Madrid or Valencia, the former institute employees are currently active in the race to make up lost scientific ground that the country embarked on a few years ago.
Already a professor qualified to teach at professional level, Jochen Wittbrodt came to Heidelberg from the Max Planck Institute in Göttingen. His friends said he was mad to spend his most productive years on a temporary contract outside the German scientific system instead of in a secure position at a university. But he did it anyway and hasn't regretted it, although his workstation is just a tiny cubicle in the corner of his laboratory divided off by glass windows and, unlike university professors, he doesn't even have a secretary.

Wittbrodt found that the EMBL had a "unique working atmosphere", almost completely free of restrictive bureaucracy, hierarchical thinking and petty jealousies. Because the institute has no permanent positions, the researchers do not see each other as competitors. "No one needs to build themselves a power base," says Wittbrodt. For EMBL boss Iain Mattaj, too, this team spirit is the institute's greatest asset. "In the USA, many scientists work against each other. That means they sometimes withhold knowledge for themselves," says Mattaj. He says this kind of thing hardly ever happens at the EMBL.

With is universal informality, English language and shared use of the technical infrastructure, everything at the institute is geared towards cooperation. Doctoral candidates also learn from the start that cooperation is the driving force behind modern research. In order to acquire potential partners, they need to pass through different working groups in their first weeks at the institute, even if at first glance their subject seems to have little to do with the research areas of their colleagues.

Around 800 junior academics apply for the 40 doctoral candidate positions every year. Mani Arumugam from India was accepted onto the coveted programme two years ago. With a Bachelor's degree from Madras College and a Master's degree from Saint Louis University in Washington, he is a typical migrant within a scientific community that is ever more heavily reliant on research. What is less typical about this bioinformatician, however, is the fact that he didn't stay in the USA but moved on to Europe, although there was no dearth of offers in the States.

He had heard of the EMBL early on. In the USA, the institute was known as the "European MIT for biosciences", after the famous technical elite university in Boston. What convinced him about the institute in the end was its interdisciplinary approach and cosmopolitan mix of people. Asked where his friends come from, he has to think for a while before answering: "From, er, Poland, Spain, India, the USA, and also Germany." In the everyday life of young researchers, people's origins seem to play no role. Some only realised where their colleagues came from during the European Championship.

The 26-year-old still finds it strange that he can't go shopping on a Sunday in a Heidelberg supermarket. Like so many people who come to Europe from Asia, Latin America or the USA, however, Arumugam is fascinated by the tremendous diversity of the continent. "I can travel 1,000 kilometres in the USA and still be in the USA. Here, the same distance takes me through three countries," he says.
The EMBL's successes prompt the question of why similar institutes do not exist for other disciplines such as mathematics or chemistry, history or sociology. Only physics has research institutes along the lines of the European model, the Cern particle accelerator in Geneva or the European observatory in Chile being well-known examples. All these were founded decades ago. "The European scientific spirit was stronger then than it is now," says EMBL boss Mattaj regretfully.

The European Union has not up till now actually been involved with any institute. The EMBL is not an EU organisation, but is supported by 20 individual countries, including Israel and Switzerland. The EU only started to approach this issue seriously in 2006 when it defined 34 major research institutes - from a research ship to a free-electron laser - that Europe needs in order to be internationally competitive. Whether these projects will ever become reality is unclear.

Most member countries and their national research institutes still believe they can manage best on their own. This opinion was particularly prevalent for a long time just a few kilometres away from the EMBL - up until a few years ago, the venerable University of Heidelberg held the international institute up on the hill in low esteem.

German EMBL researchers who dared to apply to study for their postdoctoral lecture qualification at the university were likely to be turned down with relish. Hans Schöler, probably Germany's most famous stem-cell researcher, was subjected to this humiliation in the mid-nineties.

This arrogance is now a thing of the past. The university and the EMBL now cooperate on some projects. The Initiative for Excellence has brought the two institutions closer together. Even Jochen Wittbrodt has now signed up with the university.

He wants to take with him from the EMBL as much as possible of the spirit that impressed him during his nine years on the hill: the flat hierarchies, the principle of selecting the best personnel, the trust placed in junior academics. You could describe him as a promoter of European development, but he would never put it that way himself.

Source: DIE ZEIT