Supporting EMBL and fundamental research
Angus Lamond, former EMBL Heidelberg Group Leader and Senior Scientist (1987-1995) is a fine example of the way in which EMBL alumni help to galvanise the community through their own passion for EMBL and life sciences. Having been involved in the EMBL Alumni Association from the beginning as its first Chair (2002-2008), Angus – now a Professor at the University of Dundee – has leant considerable support to various initiatives and events through the years.
In 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic was unfolding, he, together with the Alumni Relations team, identified the need for a virtual alumni forum and Coffee with EMBL was born. With Angus as the moderator, it brought the community together with special guest speakers and scientists for open, topical debate and connection. In April, we marked the one-year anniversary of this programme, highlighting its longevity and success. For his monumental efforts in supporting Coffee with EMBL, both as an instigator, contributor and host, we would like to thank Angus sincerely.
Back in early 2020, before the pandemic hit, Angus was in the process of co-organising an EMBL in the UK event in Dundee, focussing on how research discoveries can be effectively translated into impact. The event has now been postponed until 2022, and we spoke to him about the crucial importance of fundamental research – to EMBL and wider society.
I will always be a passionate defender of the need for and importance of fundamental research. We can point to so many things in recent history where important impact has been delivered. Companies, technologies, wealth, new healthcare products and so forth came from people doing high-quality basic research. I think we must continue to make the argument that basic research, with excellence as its main motivation, must be supported. The idea of only funding what is perceived as ‘applied research’, is a massive mistake, because our understanding about what types of knowledge and research can most usefully be applied changes and evolves over time as new discoveries are made.
We need to have an intelligent, broad-based dialogue between leaders of academic research and those funding research, because we should all be on the same side. This dialogue should allow us to come up with a more productive strategy for continuing to focus on excellence; to fund basic research, but to broaden its impact, breaking the barriers and strengthening opportunities for more new start-up companies to form. It’s only by stimulating a culture that makes it relatively easy for new companies to start and explore new technologies and disruptive new ideas that the success stories of the future will come through.
I think it’s very important that EMBL maintains its status as an elite organisation, but is not elitist. ‘Elite’, meaning absolutely excellent and cutting edge, but not ‘elitist’, meaning feeling privileged with a sense of entitlement. EMBL are doing fabulously I think, to focus on training bright young scientists, on disseminating best practice and on sharing information, but there is also a need to deliver super-high value for money. There is always room for improvement in any organisation and one area, perhaps, could be in broadening the impact of the EMBL organisation into creation of more new spin-out companies and more interactions with industry.
I very much want to support in any way I can the ongoing efforts of EMBL. I think it’s important to have the right arguments available as to what all the value propositions of Governments investing in international research organisations like EMBL are.
Translating basic research into impact
In my personal experience of starting spin-out companies and seeking venture investment, there are things you need to be aware of coming from an academic background, as the funding process is different from grant writing. It is common for academic researchers to focus almost exclusively on the issues around technology, problem solving and product development, because that is what they know best and are most interested in. However, you need to understand what the people on the other side of the table are thinking if you’re asking them for investment, because they are usually approaching the proposition from a different perspective. The more mutual understanding there is, and less suspicion, the more productive the discussions and the higher the chances of a successful outcome.
There are a lot of lessons from my own experience setting up Platinum Informatics that may be useful to other academics considering launching a new spin-out. For example, moving from thinking only about your research and new technology, to also understanding the needs of your future customers. You also need to understand accounting and cashflow. Most start-ups fail because of cashflow, not because of fundamental problems with the technology or even the potential market value of new products. I think we need to build an environment in the community where there’s more connection between people with these complementary skills, so that when new start-up companies are launched, they include the combination of talents and expertise that is really needed to be successful.
Don’t strangle a small seed before it can grow into a large fruit-producing tree. We need to keep explaining to the funders the potential benefits of the investments we’re asking them to make in basic research. At the same time, we, as researchers, also need to listen to society and reflect on what’s needed from us in return. I think our societies can benefit greatly from a flourishing basic research environment, especially one that encourages researchers to innovate, tackle difficult problems and take risks. Fear of failure and losing funding instead only encourages researchers to play safe, leading to incremental advances. EMBL can – and should – showcase the value of a thriving, ambitious research culture that addresses the major challenges of our age and that inspires and enables the research leaders of the future.