Summary symposium Climate Changes in Science

YFN’s third annual symposium, “Climate Changes in Science”, took place October 29, 2015 in the Poortgebouw of the Leiden University Medical Center.

Approximately 70 people attended the symposium, mostly from within the LUMC. The event was also advertised more broadly in the Medical Delta and the Leiden Bioscience Park.

The program consisted of three parts; a general introduction, speaker presentations and a panel discussion.

Dr Mettine Bos introduced the YFN, and presented some of the progress made in the last year. The YFN website is now publicly available from the main page of the LUMC. In addition, the YFN has now a fixed annual budget, allowing continuity in the events organized. At an organizational level, the board has regular meetings with the Dean (as a representative of the Board of Directors) and the PhD Student Association (LAP). The latter has resulted in some joint events, such as the seminars on “H-index vs P-index” and “Science in Transition” (in June 2014). The YFN is also actively involved in discussions on Competency Profiles for Researchers and  the LUMC Talent Tracks (with the Human Resources Management), and courses dedicated to (early career) scientists (with Boerhaave Nascholing). Finally, vacancies for the board of the YFN were announced: candidates interested in the mission of YFN are encouraged to apply.

The first speaker was prof. dr. Sander van Deventer, professor of Translational Gastroenterology (LUMC), managing Partner at Forbion Capital Partners, co-founder and advisor at UniQure. His presentation highlighted some of the major advances made in molecular medicine over the past decade and showed that most of these were the result of fundamental research rather than industry R&D. Instead, most pharmaceutical companies will acquire small start-ups. He argued that subsidizing translational research is not likely to bridge the gap between science and industry but will lead to the valley of death. He highlighted that there is a hiatus in the understanding the academic world has on bringing a product to the market and that professionalization is necessary with respect to Technology Transfer Offices, protection of intellectual property, (pre)clinical development and financial markets.

The second speaker was prof. dr. Jacques Neefjes, professor of Immunology (LUMC), group leader Netherlands Cancer Institute, member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. His interactive presentation focused on three aspects:; financing, visibility and career perspective. He argued that there is more money going into science than before, and that early career researchers have opportunities like the Innovation program and the ERC Grants that previously did not exist, but that funding research >15 years after obtaining your PhD is becoming problematic. To establish yourself as an independent researcher, he stressed the importance of visibility; becoming a recognized expert and building a network. This also generates possibilities in network type grant programs that become more and more important (such as the Gravity Programs). With respect to the career perspective, crucial aspects are choosing the right place to establish a career, and clarifying expectations (e.g. with respect to authorships) early on. He wrapped up by stating that one should always keep in mind that science is fun.

The third speaker was prof. dr. Christine Mummery, professor of Developmental Biology (LUMC), department head Anatomy and Embryology (LUMC), panel member for the National Science Agenda (NWO). The changes in the scientific climate she identified were the pressure to publish and obtain third party funding, the shift from basic to translational research, focus on valorization and patenting and top down themes (that are based on societal relevance). These are the result from limited budgets, government policies, but also a perhaps a too large body of PhD students. She offered insightful advice on how to deal with the issues that face early career scientists: make your name, pick your battles and train to get experience. She finished off by suggesting some ways in which the LUMC could contribute to the position of early career scientists; by implementing a tenure track system, by offering tenure tracks to laureates from central rather than departmental funding, and by a stronger recognition of the role of co-promoter. Finally, she argued that an effort should be made to support a switch to careers outside of academia. 

The plenary discussion was chaired by the dean of the LUMC, prof. dr. Pancras Hogendoorn. Some of the topics discussed are highlighted below:

  • Should institutional money be spent on laureates only (will it trickle down to other scientists?) or should there be a form of support for technicians, research scientist?
  • Can research be considered independent if funding agencies are “selecting” a particular type of scientist?
  • What is the role for science communication in career development? Should or should scientist not (over)simplify or (over)state their findings?
  • What is the role of teaching in a scientific career?
  • How can the knowledge of academics on IP protection be improved, both in the context of a medical center and at the level of funding agencies?
A very interesting aspect of the discussion dealt with the National Science Agenda that will become available in November 2015. Prof. Hogendoorn indicated that it is clear that the Agenda will not be accompanied by additional funding for science, but that it aims to direct part of existing research budgets to address its questions. Prof. van Deventer indicated that he thinks the Agenda cannot achieve its goal as it is impossible to predict what the major advances in science are and where they will come from. Prof. Neefjes mentioned that we should accept this as a fact; in order to move politics, a lobby needs to be started 2 years before the elections, and that science should be curiosity driven irrespective of government initiatives. Prof. Mummery provided an important argument why the Agenda is valuable: public engagement in science. We should consider this fantastic PR.