Georg Roeggla: Nobel laureates meet young scientists

georg_roegglaThe 64th meeting of Nobel laureates in the field of medicine and physiology ended on 4 July, 2014. Thirty seven Nobel laureates and more than 600 selected young scientists from 80 countries participated in this week in Lindau, Bavaria. The objective of this meeting was to bring Nobel laureates and young researchers together to exchange ideas. Therefore, the main focus was the discussions of the Nobel laureates with the assembled young scientists, and embedded into this were a variety of speeches on hot topics in international research.

The meeting culminated in a panel discussion on “Science for the benefit of mankind,” which was situated on the beautiful Isle of Mainau in Lake Konstanz. Françoise Barré-Sinoussi (Nobel prize for medicine in 2008), Brian Schmidt (Nobel prize for physics in 2011), Mgone Charles (from the European and Developing Countries Clinical Trials Partnership), Ghada Bassioni (from the Ain Shams University of Cairo), Georg Schuette (state secretary of research in Germany), and a large number of the young scientists engaged in a vivid discussion.

To sit under a canopy in the middle of an impressive park is quite an unusual setting for a discussion like this, which included a warning from Françoise Barré-Sinoussi against too strong a focus on applied research: “We must continue to support basic research; otherwise there will soon be no more bases for the applied research.”

Meanwhile, Ghada Bassioni’s appeal to invest significantly more in young researchers, and to trust in their potential in the search for solutions to the problems of our time, got unanimous acclaim.

There was consent among those gathered that basic research forms the essential basis for applied science, and that it must therefore be promoted as equally as translational research. All were in agreement that the structural differences between industrialized nations and developing countries require a variety of innovative approaches, with action on the part of science, industry, and politics.

Many young scientists argued that scientists should engage in politics because they know what they are talking about, and could guarantee a better political and social environment for science. They argued that when politicians and the media took antiscientific positions it was due to a lack of understanding on scientific topics. One example of this, was that almost no airlines allow the transport of apes, meaning that science involving apes isn’t always possible.

Another issue was that many states don’t allow genetically modified food, even though this could solve the hunger crisis, according to one speaker. Georg Schuette answered that public opinion had to be taken into account. The auditorium obviously did not share his view.

Brian Schmidt objected to the idea that good scientists aren’t necessarily good politicians. He then said that there is one fundamental difference between politics and science: scientists absolutely do not accept lying or cheating. I wish he were right, but the unchanged topicality of scientific misconduct means I have my doubts.

Georg Schuette asked if anybody was primarily engaged in research for the benefit of mankind. Nearly all hands were raised in no time at all. Nobody mentioned other motives like career reasons.

An interesting discussion took place after the end of the official program. I asked some of the participating young scientists if they were aware of the discussion started by Doug Altman’s 1994 Editorial in The BMJ on the scandal of poor medical research, and this year’s Lancet series on increasing value and reducing waste in biomedical research. To my surprise, nobody supported these positions. These quality issues just weren’t the main focus of interest for the participants I spoke to. There was a broad agreement from them that publishing papers was difficult enough without initiatives that only make things harder for young scientists.

I left with mixed feelings. It was interesting and reassuring to see so many young researchers dedicating their life to science so enthusiastically. They really think that they can save the world. But the lack of self-criticism I observed left me wondering if much of this hope could be replaced by disappointment in the further course of their scientific careers.

Georg Roeggla is an associate editor for The BMJ.