Emmanuelle Charpentier

Emmanuelle Charpentier: European research funding could do with less red tape

The CRISPR/Cas9 co-inventor shares her perspective on research funding, mobility and career

Like many other scientists in Europe, Emmanuelle Charpentier had to fight very hard to get the research funding that allowed her to co-develop the CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing method. In the second instalment of a two-part series, Charpentier, now head of regulation and infection biology at the Max-Planck-Institut in Berlin, Germany, gives her opinion on the challenges in obtaining funding in the current system in Europe. She also shares her views on how mobility can be hampered by bureaucracy. Finally, she points to the limited coherence for scientists pursuing a research career in Europe.

What challenges did you encounter when seeking research funding?

I started my career as a principal investigator in the University of Vienna, in Austria. I needed to find external funds to go ahead with my research. So, I really started in a very humble way, with little research funding from different organisations in Austria. And I was always writing different proposals. You get to the point when you need to apply more than twice or three times to the same funding organisation. But this is ultimately a chance to get your research, or part of your research, funded. The focus of my research has always been basic science. People can understand a long-term perspective just in terms of applications. A scientist reading my application may think that it may be a long way to reach this goal. But CRISPR/Cas 9 shows that it is possible to do it in a relatively short time.

What would you change in the current funding mechanism in Europe?

When I started in Vienna, I could not benefit from the funding like ERC, or the equivalent that many countries have now put in place. So, back then I needed to compete with more established faculty members for grants. I think it’s good that there is competition, no one would like to have all the proposals funded because it would not be a competitive system. However, surely the percentage is way too low. ERC, for example, is around 12%. I always had to anticipate and I was always writing grants whatever was happening in my lab. I got to the point of writing 10 to 12 grants per year to different types of organisations to make sure that my budget would be running continuously.

Is the length of the grants duration adequate?

It is clear that three years is too short of a time. Five years would be more comfortable, of course.

How to handle the level of bureaucracy your career requires mobility?

One always loses a lot of time starting in a new country. And not only in bureaucracy at the personal level, for example, finding an apartment, getting into the tax system. There is a lot of bureaucracy just to get started. There is always a lack of support from the institutions in this regard. And then surely it always takes some time before you enter the system. You need to integrate at the political level to a certain extent. When you start your career and nobody knows you in the local scientific community, it’s harder to obtain funding. It’s normal, you come from outside. People need to trust you, and this takes time, two years minimum.

Did you experience this level of bureaucracy at your current post at the Max Planck Institute?

In Germany, it was totally different. The German system was very generous with me right away. And I did not have to fight for money. Indeed, I have some colleagues joining the Max Planck Society who come from the US. They are quite shocked with the German bureaucracy because they are not used to it. Maybe they are more protected by their institutions that provide a central system that allows them to focus on the science. At the senior level, you don’t want to have a disruptive period. You want to be cautious not to waste your time. The systems are not always adapted for a fast integration. Germany, on the contrary, had tools to integrate me fast.

Is bureaucracy paralysing scientists’ mobility in Europe?

It is true that you have a lot of regulations in Europe. In Austria and Sweden, I was functioning, until very late, without technicians and without secretaries. By contrast, when entering the German system, you are confronted to the ‘Betriebsrat’–a kind of works council–where you have a lot of regulations with regard to how you employ technicians, how you employ secretaries or how you employ postdocs. You have a lot of regulations that are quite, let’s say, disruptive. At the beginning, I experienced this at Helmholtz, three years ago, I experienced this again at Max Planck. I found that there was something a little bit peculiar in the system if it was such that I cannot be supported by the system that I was coming from originally, that was Helmholtz. And that the transition to Max Plank could not occur smoothly while everyone knew what I was facing. Surely you have failures in the system.

Does mobility need to be improved?

Mobility is working very well for PhD students and postdocs. But the mobility is not always adapted at the senior level because at the senior level you don’t want to have a disruptive period. You want to be operational right away, you already loose time because you lose personel. And you lose also a lot of time starting with a new paperwork, new bureaucracy, and you have to apply for and new grants when you change countries and the systems are not always adapted for a fast integration. So Germany had tools to integrate me fast. At Helmholtz and at Max Planck; they were very efficient with this regard. And very efficient to allow me to do the funding right away to be able to spend it. But all the rest, which is as important as having the funding, was totally not functioning.

Can the structure of scientists’ career be improved, for example via tenure tracks?

Clearly, you have tenure track and tenure track. For me tenure track can be defined as when you have an opening of a junior position, an assistant professor position, this is not only for five to seven years. This is an opening for the long term. In the development plan of the university, the position is supposed to be on a sustainable basis. Sometimes, there is an opening for a position but you don’t always have a follow-up. But right now what is happening is that you have a lot of assistant professor starting their career and when they go to the market for the next position, you don’t have the same number of associate professorships announced. So often it is full professorships. It’s a little bit problematic.

So what are the solutions?

The tenure track is nevertheless a system that allows the scientist to gain some other perspective. So they may not end up in the university where they are assistant professor. But with mobility, you clearly have more possibilities, in a way, with regards to the young scientists integrating jobs in biotech or the pharmaceutical industry, for example. However, I have a lot of colleagues, for example in Germany, who are wondering you know what would happen to them. Because when they see the calls for the next position, it is very limited. By opening you know positions short terms, we accumulate the number of scientists in these situations. There is no prospective. This was a little bit the case with me. When I went to Umeå, I accepted the position of associate professor on the basis of five plus four years. That was the EMBL model. But at some point, I just decided that I should just go ahead with my research. If one day it doesn’t work out, fine. This would not be the end of the world! Actually, I was quite confident in this ‘fog’; I was confident, nevertheless.

Interview by Sabine Louët, EuroScientist Editor.

Transcription Luca Tancredi Barone, science journalist.

Featured image credit: Sabine Louët, photo taken at ESOF 2016

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Sabine Louët

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