Scientists must take their time to think – Interview with Jonathan Howard

by alrou on March 31, 2013

Image credits: Miguel Silva from "Sol"

The new director of the Instituto Gulbenkian de Ciência (IGC)  is a 69 year old British, passionate of immunology at also of piano, which he likes to play and listen to. Jonathan Howard is the successor of António Coutinho, who transformed a moribund institute into one of the most iconic science centers of Portugal. For Howard, the setting is magical by its youth and cosmopolitanism. 

You said that the Instituto Gulbenkian de Ciência (IGC) is a “magical” place. Why?
I think this is magical is due to the fact that scientists are young. What is interesting to note is that this institute was built almost from scratch. It was founded in the sixties, had a peak and then spiraled downward. In the late eighties it was moribund. I believe that it was Calouste Gulbenkian that decided to step it up. They began by introducing doctoral programs for young students, but in very small groups, selected directly by António Coutinho and Alexandre Quintanilha. These students were here one year, only to learn science from international conferences. At the end of that year the Fundação para a Ciência e Tecnologia-FCT (Foundation for Science and Technology) gave them scholarships to go to any part of the world (except to Portugal) to enroll in a PhD. That was very important. When they started to come back, they were still young. And these young scientists had to take the responsibility for managing the institute. There was nobody else. 

Anyhow, you already knew the IGC Institute, because you were a consultant there since 2004.
I knew the IGC from even longer since I taught these doctoral programs there in the nineties. I think I came here for the first time in 1995 or 1996. 

There always has been a spirit of partying here but at the same time, a very organized workplace. Do you think there is a balance between both?
For sure.  However there is always an excuse to put up a party here [laughs]. But the organization is very professional. It is a very organized institute with a young cadre and a small administration, with a director and the managers of the research groups. And that’s it. In many institutes there is the Director, the Deputy Director, the Assistant Director, and so on. 

You were before in Cologne. Is it very different?
A lot. German universities are very large, and as in all universities, there is an obligation to teach, so there is an independent structure for the faculty members. German professors are much more important than Portuguese scientists. At least, they think so [laughs]. 

Here there is a tradition of some researchers moving from one group to another. This happens all the time. Everything is shared in the institute: all the equipment, machinery and the entire infrastructure. 

With the budget cuts, which also cover Science & Investigation, didn’t the IGC resent it?
We must always have in mind that the IGC is a special case because it has direct support from the Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian. Here we have the feeling of being in good hands. Currently in other Portuguese institutions, there must be a feeling of considerable anxiety. If Portuguese investigation was well known internationally, it would be relatively easy to get financing. But it is still quite new and that means that in depends on Portuguese funds. And now there is less money available. 

Here you have investigators of practically all the corners in the world. The image that was passed over the years is that this was a passageway but with a fixed structure.
We don’t really have a fixed structure. With this regard, the IGC is more like many modern institutions in Northern Europe, trying to work with a very small number of permanent positions. And we try to renew people – they spend six to nine years in the institution, learning to develop themselves as scientists and then go to other universities. 

Image Credits: Instituto Gulbenkian de Ciência -IGC

Is the IGC following this trend?
We have lots of young people entering, but the Institute is not as young as it was. Many new brains, essentially the Portuguese, came here with the optimistic idea of ​​leaving after a few years. This must probably be one of the most comfortable places to do science in Portugal, which makes them want to stay. And this is probably the thorniest problem that the director has – to strike a balance between the vitality of the institute and the fact that scientists want to stay and me having to tell them that they have to go. They say that they have a home and family here … but this is a problem that also occurs in the biggest and best institutes in Europe. 

For scientists it must be difficult to reconcile work and private life when constantly moving from one side to the other …
It is not reconcilable. I am married with children. My wife works in Heidelberg, we live in Cologne, and I work in Portugal. 

But you remain here.
True, but the center of my family is in Cologne. My children are in England, at the university. When they were born, I was in Cambridge and my wife in Tübingen in southern Germany. Our children spent the weekends flying around Europe. This is not unusual in the scientific community. 

Marriages must last longer this way …
It’s true [laughs]. It’s not easy, but I think that young people in Portugal expect to have a family life. In this sense, the mentality is more old-fashioned and I do not say it in a negative sense. I even find the idea to have a large family with strong familial bonds very appealing.

Besides the difficulty of settling, there is the problem of having to publish works to be recognized.
I do think so. When I started, the community was much smaller, we didn’t live in such a hurry and there wasn’t that much competition. Young people today feel a kind of panic when they cannot publish their articles. Before, people moved by choice. Now it seems that they have to move under pressure. 

Dou you think that this is better for science?
No, I don’t like it. There is a lot of discussion about this – is the speed of the advancement of science important? Ambition leads scientists to do more in less time. Everyone around feels that they must do the same. And this leads to a snowball effect. But there is already a movement in science to counter this effect, something  similar to the Italian slow food movement [laughs], which reasons that scientists should think a little more and reflect on what is most important, rather than running around like a headless chicken. Today we think we have to publish first – this is an important point. Furthermore, we must publish in a newspaper or a major trade publication. This is crucial to our career path. If we publish only in irrelevant journals, we will miss opportunities in our careers, at least this is so in the Western world. 

But at some point in their careers, scientists feel the eagerness to publish, regardless of the outcome?
No. If we try to publish a job poorly made then we will only be able to publish it in poor publications. What really matters, what really changes the careers and increases the value of an institute is to publish in one of the major publications. Some of them are extremely important throughout the world: Science, Nature (and its sister publications like Nature Neuroscience, Nature Genetics, Nature Cellbiology), among others. If a scientist is able to publish in one of these publications, he/she can be assured that his life will improve considerably just for that reason alone. If we think about it, we understand better this urgency to publish. I find it very hard to accept it, but this is the way that it is. People in this institute are able to publish in these publications, but it is not easy and is very damaging for the younger scientists. 

A scientist is what he publishes?
There is another important thing for the careers of young scientists: it is what their seniors say about them. We do rely on the opinion of our colleagues. We can even say that a young scientist hasn’t published, but is nonetheless a brilliant scientist, who will end up in producing something. 

What are currently the key research areas of IGC?
We are interested, generically, in studies of the evolution. There is much interest in these mechanisms, which originate many important biological characteristics, and there are many theoretical studies on the subject. There is another group of scientists working on the relationship between a parasite and its host, meaning in organisms that cause diseases. Most are formed by virus and bacteria and there is an important group here working in malaria. I myself work in the parasite-host relationship. There is another significant group that deals with the epidemiology, which studies how an infectious disease can spread through a population. These studies are being made at a theoretical level, related with population genetics. In addition to that, there are also people who are interested in how cells age in the aging process. But at the moment, there is very little work being done with human cells. 

Do you have a relation with hospitals or universities?
We have studies related to epidemiology, in which the group is theoretical, but nevertheless uses data that come directly from hospitals in Lisbon and others. And there is also a group that made various studies of the genetic resistance to diseases in humans, which also uses records of local hospitals. I do however believe that we haven’t worked in a very close relationship with hospitals. This is neither good nor bad. It is only done if it’s worthwhile. We have some contacts with pharmaceutical companies, which are still in the exploratory stage. And we also have good relations with the Instituto de Biologia Experimental e Tecnológica-IBET (which is a Biotechnology Research Institute). 

Is the IGC now more independent vis-à-vis the FCG?
It is my belief that the Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian-FCG considered that the IGC was intellectually autonomous and able to self-manage. For them it was not practical to manage the day-to-day operations, there was a lot of work involved and the board of members had to sign each and every one of the contracts. It was an absurd situation. Because of the strength of the foundation, its size and its scale, they found it more appropriate to distance themselves from the institute. FGC created an infrastructure through which the institute is managed; the management committee. With this, they delegated various responsibilities previously agreed with management, which are then transferred to the committee and then to me. What happens now is that I’m the one who signs these forms. 

Do you have other interests, such as the piano?
Yes, I play a lot. I have a teacher in Cologne. 

What about now. Do you have a Portuguese teacher?
I don’t have a teacher in Portugal. I only play. When I return to Cologne I’ll resume classes. I started to play when I was about six years old. I always played, had lessons until I was sixteen, but like any boy of that age, I had no time or interest to continue. Moreover, I didn’t excel at it. I made a pause but never stopped playing, I just stopped taking lessons. 

And what is your repertoire?
Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, Chopin … the usual. But what is amazing here is the music in the IGC foundation. It’s fantastic! I go there often. 

Article written by journalist Ricardo Nabais with the first photo from Miguel Silva, originally featured in the “Revista Tabú”, a magazine supplement of the newspaper “Sol“, edition of February 8, 2013 (pages 62-65) and translated under permission by BestInPortugal.  Image credits for the second photo: Site of IGC Institute.

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