Annual Report 2021

A year of exceptional life science research, training, service, industry collaboration, and integration of European life science research.

​​Better together

In 2021, EMBL formalised international research partnerships with institutions across its member states.

EMBL and CNR flags alongside Italian flag
The agreement between CNR and EMBL was one of several formalised collaborations in 2021. Credit: EMBL

One of EMBL’s strengths as a multinational research organisation is that its member states and their unique scientific capacities make the whole greater than the sum of its parts. Together, they advance the state of life science in Europe and beyond.

Memoranda of understanding (MoUs) deepen those relationships, and 2021 proved to be a year that excelled at formalising institutional collaborations, specifically as it led up to the start of EMBL’s new Programme, ‘Molecules to Ecosystems. Part of this programme will help to address major global challenges by studying life ‘in context’, requiring deeper cross-border collaboration to successfully expand EMBL’s own research capacities. It will also raise the level of what EMBL and its member states are able to do together.

“EMBL’s new ambition is to connect disciplines to enable a new understanding of the world around us and within us from a molecular biology point of view,” said Plamena Markova, EMBL’s Head of International Relations. “To achieve this, we search for sustainable ways to bring people together, get them interested in each other’s work, and allow them to co-create. The MoUs we concluded pave the way: in the preparatory discussions for these agreements, we identified not only our shared priorities, but also complementary strengths, and then we agreed on a framework to guide our collaboration.”

Indeed, connections on an institutional level provide a framework to support joint research, shared use of services, training activities, and exchanges that become easier to coordinate with such formalised agreements. Here are some examples:

  • With Estonia and Latvia, EMBL was able to reiterate its support for the countries’ scientific research through specific MoUs that show mutually relevant strategic priorities and support their path towards full EMBL membership.
  • EMBL’s ties with the Italian Research Council had already produced collaborations and joint publications, but a new MoU will now telegraph to funding bodies a deeper level of support and commitment, particularly in the context of EMBL’s new Programme priorities.
  • Signing an MoU with SciLifeLab in Sweden showed how a shared interest in tackling planetary biology meant that the two organisations could consult with one another more fully as they both expanded their research missions, factoring in not just research, but training and infrastructure as well.
  • An MoU with Comenius University Science Park in Slovakia from 2019 bore fruit in 2021 as it paved the way towards an EU Twinning grant, along with University of Milano Bicocca, that would expand capacity in biomedical genomics and bioinformatics through targeted networking, mentoring, and training activities.
  • EMBL has close ties to Tara Ocean Foundation, but its new Programme will increase the ways in which the two organisations might partner, beckoning for a more formalised MoU, which was established in 2021.
  • In summer 2021, the European Commission and the EOSC-Association, of which EMBL is a Member, signed an MoU establishing the European Open Science Cloud co-programmed European Partnership. It will fortify EOSC by improving the storing, sharing, and reusability of research data across borders and scientific disciplines.

The new MoUs – beyond just these highlighted – represent work that will include research collaboration, training exchanges, and sharing of facilities, know-how, and staff. They cover a wide range of scientific areas, such as marine ecosystems, scientific imaging related to cancer, RNA technologies, new approaches to drug development, and cross-disciplinary topics around planetary biology.

“An MoU can be the first step to exploring links,” Markova said. “And while we can have informal collaborations without formal agreements, again and again we see how MoUs open the floodgates for new kinds of exchanges and a variety of collaborative activities. It’s about making great science even better.”

A collaboration that keeps growing

It was the end of May 2021 when, as a ‘kick off’ to a new MoU, EMBL and SciLifeLab met virtually to discuss potential scientific collaborations. Fitting nicely with a spring motif, the MoU found fertile ground.

“Drafting and reviewing the content of MoUs and collaborative agreements from a legal perspective, we support EMBL’s missions by protecting its legal interests so that our collaborations can reach their scientific goals. It’s not science, but our work allows the cutting-edge science to occur.”

— Anna Kubalczyk, Senior Legal Officer at EMBL Legal Services

Marja Makarow

“Cross-border collaboration provides mutual access to research infrastructure and enables rapid, wide distribution of new knowledge. “

— Marja Makarow, President of Academia Europaea; former EMBL Council delegate of Finland; EMBL postdoc, 1981–1983

Logos of EMBL and SciLifeLab on a white background, overlaid on a fluorescence microscopy image of cells.

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