EMBL’s Jan Ellenberg reflects on the process of forming a European research infrastructure
This is an incredible time for life science research: a time when we can understand – and soon predict – how living systems work in all their complexity. To continue making progress, we will increasingly depend on the large-scale generation, integration, sharing, and analysis of biological data. This means we need to become better organised as a community, with widespread access to the latest technologies, and we need to make the case for larger investments in life science research.
Euro-BioImaging’s new status as a European Research Infrastructure Consortium (ERIC), confirmed in November, is an important step towards achieving this goal. It means that 14 countries across Europe, along with EMBL, have now made a formal commitment to participate in and fund the initiative, and more are expected to join over the coming year. This will significantly advance Euro-BioImaging’s aim of promoting uptake of the latest technologies in biological and biomedical imaging, and making them openly available to scientists across Europe.
The origins of Euro-BioImaging go back to 2001, when Rainer Pepperkok, Director of EMBL’s Core Facilities, several other colleagues and I founded the European Light Microscopy Initiative (ELMI), which for the first time brought together the light microscopy community across Europe and connected them to partners in industry. It became clear from discussions in this community that the demand for microscopy services greatly exceeded capacity, so more investment and better technologies were needed.
On the map
In 2006 the European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures (ESFRI) began considering proposals for life science projects. Initially ESFRI had mostly taken projects from physics and engineering, which traditionally involve large-scale infrastructures. The decision to include other projects came partly as a result of EMBL pointing out the importance of the life sciences for Europe’s future, and lobbying for their inclusion in ESFRI. An early success was the addition to the 2006 ESFRI roadmap of the ELIXIR project. Based at EMBL’s European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI), ELIXIR is a data infrastructure that helps researchers to handle and analyse large biological datasets, and provides training and tools in bioinformatics. Only two years later, in 2008, ELIXIR was joined on the ESFRI roadmap by Euro-BioImaging.
One of the first achievements for Euro-BioImaging was demonstrating the effectiveness of a distributed infrastructure, with sites in many countries where scientists could access imaging technologies. In fields such as physics, the model is often to have a single large machine that everyone uses, so in the early stages many people questioned how a distributed model would work. We showed it was feasible by offering pilot service provision in many countries, which was a key success in persuading funders and scientists to adopt this model.
Another major factor in the success of the project was building an international community of scientists who know and trust each other, and understand the benefits of working collaboratively. This is an integral part of the way we work at EMBL, but in projects that involve bringing many countries together, there can be an element of competition between countries, along with concerns about the benefits of sharing resources. Since 2009, our Head of Imaging Infrastructure Strategy Development, Antje Keppler, has taken on much of this vital work of building and maintaining relationships within the imaging community. This can only work by visiting each country, talking to people and building trust, and guiding the project according to the needs of the community and what they want to achieve.
This community-building work is not only about getting scientists to work together, but also building a community of funders and politicians who see the benefits of such a venture and are prepared to finance it and make a commitment that their countries will participate. Ultimately, that is the more difficult challenge. It’s not usually necessary to convince scientists that imaging technology is important, but for a research ministry it’s only one of many possible research technologies to invest in, and the life sciences are only one of many possible scientific disciplines. Making the case at the political level has therefore been important, as well as building personal relationships with members of research ministries and research councils in various countries. For politicians and funders, even being present at a meeting can be taken as a sign of formal commitment, so it’s vital at the beginning of such a project to make it clear that the primary purpose is to seek input and guidance from various parties, without a commitment at that stage to be involved in the long term.
Growth and evolution
Looking ahead, it’s clear that if we want to promote EMBL’s role in Euro-BioImaging, we need to increase our user capacity. The EMBL Imaging Centre – due to begin operations in 2021 – will make it possible for 300 additional scientists each year to come to EMBL’s Heidelberg site and use the imaging facilities here. EMBL is probably the leading institution in Europe for developing new technologies and providing services in the field of microscopy, so we want to continue building on that strength. Imaging is a rapidly growing and evolving field that more and more of life science depends on.
Working on this project across many countries and cultures, I’ve seen how this striving for knowledge, for understanding, for moving research forward, really brings people together in a unique way. That is not something I expected, and is not the reason I first became involved in the project, but is probably why I’ve stayed with it for so long. It’s a great example of how EMBL’s culture of internationality and collaboration can be shared with our member states, with everyone working towards the same goal. I’m grateful that we’ve got this far, and after more than a decade of building this consortium I look forward to what comes next. It’s incredibly rewarding to know that thousands of people across Europe will have access to the newest imaging technologies, will develop them further, and will use them to make extraordinary discoveries.