Islands of research and excellence

Islands of research and excellence

Imagine if in Greece, with its crisis, its disappointments, its exodus of young academics, there was an organization that selected researchers who had stayed here and offered them financial assistance for one or two years. Imagine if the evaluation committee comprised professors from some of the world’s most prestigious universities, including two winners of the Nobel Prize. You would say that this was science fiction. And you would be wrong: For the past five years, with quiet determination, far from any publicity, such an organization has been at work in Greece, supporting researchers in the biomedical field. It evaluates, selects and supports them, providing financial assistance and a network of opportunities for them to develop their work.

Fondation Sante was established in 2000 by prominent Greek scientists who live abroad. Since 2012 it has provided 37 researchers with 77 grants worth 20,000 euros a year (some received a second grant). This year, for the first time, recipients from Greece and Cyprus took part in a one-day symposium held by the foundation, in Athens on October 6. “They were all excellent,” said Spyros Artavanis-Tsakonas, president of the foundation and emeritus professor of cell biology at Harvard and at the College de France. “They were very happy to come together. That’s why some asked for the meeting to be regular. They can help each other very much. There is a community that is quite significant. It needs nurturing.”

Among the participants was Professor Nektarios Tavernarakis, research director of neuroscience at the Institute of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology at the Foundation for Research and Technology on Crete. “In my opinion, this is an excellent initiative which provided the opportunity for scientists who are active in a broad range of life sciences to come together, present their work and discuss joint activities and cooperation,” he wrote in an email. “Something like this is very important, because today, especially, research is based mainly on multidisciplinary approaches that demand close cooperation and the exchange of information on many different levels. I hope that this really successful initiative will continue and that it will be established on a regular annual or biennial basis.”

Besides offering grants for research, Fondation Sante awards top students who get into medical school, Professor Tavernarakis noted. “There is the possibility of funding postgraduate students in biotechnology through short internship programs at companies abroad. Despite the fact that the amount of funding is not large, it creates a positive dynamic, functioning as a reward for the effort being made, serving as a springboard for the recipients to pursue larger amounts of funding.”

Fondation Sante is a private charitable foundation operating exclusively for charitable, scientific and educational purposes. Financial support has been provided by its members and individual donors. All contributions are deductible under US tax law, its site notes (www.fondationsante.org). On its seven-member research grants evaluation committee, apart from Artavanis-Tsakonas, who chairs it, sit Sidney Altman, a biochemist and a professor of molecular biology at Yale University who won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1989, and David Baltimore, a biologist, university administrator and one of the 1975 recipients of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. He served as president of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) from 1997 to 2006 and is currently the Robert A. Millikan Professor of Biology at Caltech. Chairman of Fondation Sante’s board and a co-founder is Dr Stelios Papadopoulos, a co-founder and chairman of the board of Exelixis Inc and a member of the Board of Directors of Biogen Idec Inc, BG Medicine Inc, Regulus Therapeutics Inc and Joule Unlimited Inc.

Members of the foundation would like to be able to award larger amounts of money and for longer periods. “An amount of between 3 and 5 million a year would change the face of biomedical research in Greece. You take people with international potential and you give them the opportunity to do well with relatively not a lot of money,” Artavanis-Tsakonas said. “In this way you could provide 25 serious grants, of 100,000 to 200,000 a year. And you could say, ‘Take this amount for five years,’ so that there can be continuity.”

Artavanis-Tsakonas noted that it would take an endowment of about 100 million euros to be able to provide such grants. The gains for the country, though, would be much greater. “If there is a center of excellence in biomedicine, other sectors, too, will develop,” he said. “Academics involved in literature, historians, will all gain something, they will see that excellence can be pursued. That one should not settle for second best ‘because this is Greece.’ They shouldn’t say, ‘This is Greece, nothing can be done.’ This is what the French term ‘bon pour l’Orient,’ good enough for the Orient. This is an abdication of quality.”

Fulla Chapple, the foundation’s executive director, says that Fondation Sante aims to provide about 12 grants of 25,000 euros in 2018. “Even with this augmentation the funds remain very modest and should be considered grants in aid rather than grants that can sustain a laboratory for a significant amount of time,” she said.

An initiative that supports Greek researchers in their own country is not science fiction. It exists and it has made a valuable contribution over the past few years. What remains a dream is that Fondation Sante could find the sponsors who would support an initiative to have a very serious impact on the nature of biomedical research in Greece and at the same time create centers of excellence, as Artavanis said.

Such centers of excellence would be islands of serious effort, of hope, of development in the very difficult Greek climate.

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