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REPORT OF THE FEBS WORKING GROUP TO EXPLORE WAYS TO IMPROVE ASSISTANCE TO EASTERN EUROPEAN COUNTRIES

 

The FEBS Working group met in Bucharest from February 6-9, 2000. The participants were Professor G. Dirheimer, chairman of FEBS, Professor J. Celis, Secretary General of FEBS, Professor I. Mowbray, Treasurer of FEBS, Professor P.N. Campbell, Coordinator of the Scientific Apparatus Recycling Scheme, Professor A. El’skaya (Ukraine), Professor J. Baranska (Poland), Professor I. Safarik (Czech Republic) and Dr S. Szedlacsek (Romania).

The visit was perfectly organized by Dr Szedlacsek and Dr S. Petrescu, President of the Rumanian Biochemical Society, and their colleagues. The Working Group was received in a most friendly fashion and much appreciated the outstanding Rumanian hospitality.

Visit to Institutes:

The programme included first, on Monday (7th) in the morning, visits to the Institute of Biochemistry (Director, Professor S. Petrescu), to the Institute of Cell Biology and Pathology "N.Simionescu" (Director, Professor M. Simionescu), both belonging to the Romanian Academy, and then to the Department of Biochemistry, Faculty of Biology, University of Bucharest (Head of the Department, Professor A. Dinischiotu) which is under the Ministry of Education.

In the afternoon, the Working Group visited a section of the Institute of Food Chemistry (Manager, Professor G. Mencinicopschi) and the Institute of Chemical and Pharmaceutical Research (General Manager, Dr M. Moscovici). However, it did not visit the National Institute of Biological Science, Research and Development which is supported through the Ministry of Research and Technology or the Cantacuzino Institute which is supported through the Ministry of Health.

The budgets of the different laboratories are financed through a system of grants which come from the Academy (average fund per project, US$700) and the National Agency for Sciences (average fund per project US$5,300). The University gets grants from the Ministry of Education and from the World Bank for refurbishing the laboratories.

These site visits, including the discussion following oral presentations, gave the Working Group an overview of the strengths and weaknesses of science in Rumania.

Visits to Officials:

The second day was devoted to visits to the Ministry of Education where the Working Group met the representatives of the Minister (Professor A. Miroiu, secretary of State, Professor P. Rinderu and Professor I. Ciuca); and then to the National Agency for Science, Technology and Innovation (NASTI, President, Professor S. Lanyi). Finally, the group met with the head of the Romanian Academy Professor E. Simon together with the Vice-President, Professor M. Simionescu. The chairman of the working group, Professor G. Dirheimer, explained the reasons behind the visit, and the officials presented the various programmes and sources of funding. From the discussions, the working group gained a first hand impression of the funding possibilities and priorities in Romanian Life Sciences.

Round tables:

The Working Group met for two round table discussions, one on Sunday evening and one on Tuesday afternoon.

First, the aid currently provided by FEBS to Eastern and Central European Countries was surveyed. G. Dirheimer distributed the data for the Long-term, Short-term and Summer Fellowships, as well as for the Youth Travel grants, distributed to researchers in these countries in 1999. Tables 1 and 2 show that they received between 45% and 55% of the Fellowships awarded except for the Long- term Fellowships where only about 15% went to Eastern and Central European Countries. P.N. Campbell gave a list of materials sent to Eastern and Central European Countries by SARS which cost FEBS about GBP 111,200 (DEM 350,000) between 1992 to 1999 (Table 3 shows the distribution between the different countries). I. Mowbray reminded the Working Group that Eastern and Central European Biochemists represent about 30% of FEBS Biochemists.

The representatives of Poland, Czech Republic and Ukraine presented briefly the situation of biochemical research in their countries. Whereas in the first two countries the situation is improving, in Ukraine the situation is as precarious as in Romania.

Summary of Findings:

Concerning the visit of the Working Group to the Institutes in Bucharest one must distinguish between those of Academy and the University - that are engaged mainly in basic research - from those that are business oriented.

1) The Institute of Food Chemistry essentially carries out analytical chemistry for food production, whereas the Institute of Chemical and Pharmaceutical Research deals with the synthesis of drugs, chemicals and diagnostic tests, medicinal and aromatic plant processing and pharmacology. These two Institutes are really firmly business-related and do not belong to the area of interest of FEBS, whose main aim is to advance basic research in biochemistry and molecular and cellular biology.

2) The Institutes of the Academy and University.

  • The Institutes are mainly engaged in basic research, but are under-funded and under-equipped. There is no infrastructure for large state-of-the-art equipment. The President of the National Agency for Science (NASTI) confirmed that only about 10% of research money are allocated to basic research. However, there seemed to be no clear definition of what is regarded as basic as opposed to applied research.
  • The collaboration between Academy and University is not ideal: for example, no University Assistants or Professors work in the Academy's Institute of Biochemistry. In addition, according to a new law, Ph.D supervisors must be members of the University: thus members of Academy Institutes have to apply to be Assistant Professors to supervise Ph.D students in their Institutes.
  • The library facilities are inadequate and not coordinated between the different Institutes. There is a real need to pool all the resources together, a fact that was recognized and supported by Professor Lanyi. There is a urgent need for internet connections although the Institutes the Working Group visited are linked to internet albeit, except in one case, by an expensive land line.
  • The salaries are very low : US$ 100 a month for a senior researcher and much less for a post-doctoral worker or a student. A new system of salary allocation, taking into account different criteria such as the number and Citation Index of publications, but also motivation, initiative, originality and creativity has recently been set up. The Director of the Institute assisted by a small committee decides the salary. The same holds for promotion of researchers. The low salaries and the difficulties in performing modern research because of lack of bench money and apparatus means that Romanian post-docs, after a stay abroad, are reluctant to come back. This is a major problem as many senior people will soon retire and there will, therefore, be a lack of continuity.

The problems faced by Ph.D students is even more dramatic as their resources are so very low that they are often stopped in their experiments by shortage of chemicals. The Academy has set aside 15% of the budget for grants to support young scientists. This is good, but perhaps not enough. The great majority of students and researchers are females. This sentence should not be misinterpreted, but corresponds certainly to the impossibility for a young man to set up a family with the salaries on offer.

Proposals from the Working Group :

1) To the funding agencies including the Academy:

  • There is a need to establish a limited number of strategic areas in basic research. Also, the funding agencies must clearly define (and support) Centers of Excellence.
  • FEBS offers to provide panels of scientists to evaluate and formulate strategic plans. This offer could be made to all Eastern European countries .
  • Help young scientists in the Eastern European countries to form network connections by providing support to attend meetings and courses. FEBS is in a unique position to catalyze networking as it is the largest organization in Europe in the area of biochemistry and molecular cell biology.

2) To the Institutes and Departments:

  • Introduce better coordination of the library facilities.
  • Organize joint seminar programmes, especially when foreign scientists are invited.
  • Direct the students to all the possible sources of funding (fellowships) available abroad.
  • Encourage publication in international journals which is necessary when applying for competitive funding (e.g. FEBS Long-term Fellowships).

3) To the Constituent Society:

  • Set up an updated Web page.
  • Encourage joint meetings with other related Societies.
  • Make sure that all FEBS information is distributed to members.
  • Encourage members to apply for grants to attend courses; and to organize Advanced Courses locally.
  • Keeps close contact with other Constituent Societies and develop together a vision for research in the Eastern and Central European countries in the new millennium.

Specific proposals from the Working Group for action by FEBS:

  • Improve the flow of information in the Eastern and Central European countries by providing Internet access via satellite dishes and associated equipment where this is possible. This can be partly or fully supported by FEBS.
  • Offer a limited number of free subscriptions (hard copy) of FEBS Letters and The European Journal of Biochemistry (EJB) to those Eastern European countries that are in desperate need.
  • Ask the Fellowships Committee to reconsider the aims of the Summer Fellowships so that they can be accessible to young researchers that do not have a competitive list of publications (e.g. Ph.D students). A good system could be a collaboration with Institutes from Western European countries where Ph.D students would go from time to time for short periods (say 3 months on average during a year ; 2-3 times during a thesis) to perform experiments not feasible in Eastern and Central European Countries. Co-supervision of the thesis between an Eastern and a Western supervisor could be set up. This is already feasible in France, but not in all Western European countries.
  • Seek to organize more practical and lecture courses in eastern Europe with the aim of providing both novel technology and networking assistance to all Eastern countries and to achieve critical mass (virtual) in the area. Professor Celis has talked to S. Szedlacsek to explore the possibility of organizing a FEBS Advanced (practical and lecture) Course (Genomics and Functional Genomics or Recombinant DNA techniques) next year in Bucharest. Professor Celis has informed the chairman of the FEBS Advanced Courses Committee Professor K.W.A. Wirtz accordingly.

It was felt finally that this was just a beginning and that the Working Group should continue to see whether and how FEBS could catalyze key actions to improve biochemistry and molecular and cellular biology in Eastern Europe. It was also felt by our Romanian hosts that our presence had given them access to structures of government power which they would not have had without the international nature of the Working Group and that visits to other countries in the region might be similarly beneficial.

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