Sometimes it takes someone to ask the right question to arrive at an important piece of information. And often these questions are asked by new people, who challenge the assumptions you take for granted about the place where you work. Shortly after Dan and I started working together to lead strategy and communications he asked me what I thought was special about EMBL. Like most other people that he had asked before, I struggled to distill the gist of what EMBL is down to one sentence. But he continued asking and after several rounds of ‘I don’t buy it’ and ‘you don’t get it’, we arrived at something we both thought was a very powerful concept. EMBL is an incubator. It recruits the very best scientists worldwide and gives them almost complete freedom and the conditions to do something great … after they left EMBL.
An incubator of knowledge, talent and excellence
Like an incubator for start-up companies EMBL does not expect immediate return, but takes a risk and invests in the future. This idea is not only unique for a research institution, it also explains some of the communication challenges we face. For example, it is difficult to summarise EMBL’s research portfolio in one sentence without making sweeping statements such as ‘covers the whole spectrum of molecular biology’ or ‘from molecules to organisms’. The reason is, EMBL does not select scientists to answer a specific question. We recruit scientists because they are bright, talented and enthusiastic and we trust them to find a fascinating problem to solve. This gives rise to a stunning breadth of research topics that does not make it easy to tell a single story about EMBL.
Similarly, we often struggle to show the impact of research done at EMBL. This is not only because our scientists engage in basic research, the very first step that is generally quite removed from any application, but also because EMBL recruits researchers very young and kickstarts their careers. Combined with our policy of time-limited contracts, where most people leave after nine years, this often means that success and applications become tangible only after scientists have left EMBL. This makes it hard for EMBL to claim new drugs, new technologies or prizes won by our alumni as its own success stories. Because they happen many years later elsewhere.
Instead of being frustrated by this reality, we should embrace it as EMBL’s unique identity. EMBL is an incubator of knowledge, talent and excellence. What better value could we possibly provide to scientists, member states, industry and funders: we sow the seeds, you harvest the fruits.
The image of an incubator stretches further than EMBL’s research. It perfectly describes our commitment to training and puts emphasis on one of our strongest assets – the network of over 7000 fantastically trained EMBL alumni. Similarly, it encompasses the spirit of innovation that drives EMBL’s technology development that has created many patents and spin-out companies. Some of them at EMBL, but many more elsewhere. It explains, why we make infrastructure available to scientists worldwide and why we build bridges between scientists in different countries and foster international collaboration.
So, EMBL starts up life sciences in many different ways. Maybe that is why, despite 40 years of age, EMBL itself often still seems like a start-up. We are living a start-up culture in the way we interact and work together. This famous ‘EMBL culture’ is obvious to everyone who has experienced it, but we all struggle to put into words. Flat hierarchies, little formalised procedures, an emphasis on personal interaction, collaboration, flexibility, and frankly a lot of trial and error and gradual refinement of processes. This is true for EMBL’s research, but also for many other things we do. It describes perfectly how we are approaching the ongoing restructuring of the strategy and communications team, for example. The result is a kind of creative chaos in a protected environment that encourages people to think big and take risks. And it appears this strategy pays off – even if it is way down the line and EMBL itself does not always get to harvest the fruit.
We have been dwelling on this idea for a while and believe that ‘startup life science’ is a powerful image to expand upon in the communications strategy that we want to develop for EMBL over the course of the next months. What do you think?