Line Matthiessen, European Commission Executive Secretary of the EC – US Task Force on Biotechnology Research


International Innovation presents a fascinating discussion with Line Matthiessen, European Commission Executive Secretary of the EC-US Task Force on Biotechnology Research, on its objectives, a changing scientific landscape, and its achievements since its inception 20 years ago

What circumstances created a necessity for the EC-US Task Force on Biotechnology Research, and could you offer an overview of its main aims and objectives?

The establishment of the Task Force in 1990 came at a time when the world was changing dramatically. The rapid advances in global computing and communications that altered every aspect of daily life presented new opportunities for scientific coordination and collaboration. The genomics revolution, which allowed scientists to investigate the structure and function of organisms on a genome-wide scale, was also marked by an increasing international cooperation, initially because of the sheer scope and cost of the first projects.

The European Commission and the White House Office of Science and Technology acknowledged in the late 1980s that the emerging area of biotechnology would become a ‘megascience’ and seized the new opportunities for international cooperation by establishing a forum for policy makers and scientists from European Union and the United States to exchange ideas and spur the full development of biotechnology to the benefit of society.

The Task Force’s stated aim is “to promote information exchange and coordination between biotechnology research programmes funded by the European Commission and the United States Government”. However, the Task Force has also developed into a unique ‘think-tank’ for science policy makers and scientists on biotechnology research.

For 20 years, the Task Force has looked to the future aiming to anticipate the needs of tomorrow’s science, today, hoping to stimulate new interdisciplinary scientific communities to form across the Atlantic. For example, in 1997, the Task Force sponsored a workshop ‘Thinking Small in a Global Scale’, and as a result of the workshop, the field of nanobiotechnology was born.

Each year the Task Force sponsors many workshops, which involve both U.S. and European researchers. The recommendations from these workshops flow directly into the research programmes of the U.S. Federal research agencies that participate in the Task Force, as well as into the Framework Programmes of the European Commission.

Can you give an example of an area in which is the EC-US Task Force is currently coordinating transatlantic efforts to promote research on biotechnology and its applications for the benefit of society?

Synthetic biology, a topic which raised new attention in May this year when Craig Venter announced the creation of the first self-replicating synthetic cell, has been on the Task Force agenda since 2006 when we sponsored the first workshop.

We have set the goal to find common grounds on scientific and technical aspects of synthetic biology as well as on governance and ethics in order to promote scientific and social values with the same pace and effort. In this respect the Task Force sponsored a Workshop on Standards in Synthetic Biology, from 4-6 June 2010 in Segovia, Spain.

Given that the mandate behind the Task Force is renewed every five years, what are your targets for the coming period?

The mandate should be renewed in 2011 and we are currently discussing with our U.S. colleagues the priorities for the future, but the accent of the work of the Task Force now is on the major global societal challenges and the opportunities for the biosciences to provide solutions to critical challenges such as:

• Food security and healthier food and the fight against obesity

• Finding alternatives to fossil resources from terrestrial or marine resources

• Detecting, monitoring, and removing environmental pollution

• Training the next generation of scientific leaders in biotechnology to work collaboratively across the Atlantic

What trends are emerging in terms of the research that has been encouraged by the Task Force?

The impact of the Task Force’s discussions on pioneering research is visible in our science policy orientation and priority setting. For example the Task Force sponsored several workshops dedicated to research on reducing our dependence on fossil resources by using crops as alternatives for energy and for producing chemical bio-based products.

The ideas jointly developed were turned into concrete flagship themes: plant cell walls in relation to bio-refining; plant oils as industrial feedstocks, and biopolymers. U.S. and European scientists are now working together in these fields under the Food, Agriculture and Fisheries and Biotechnology themes of the EU Seventh Framework Programme (FP7).

These activities have also influenced the policy development in Europe and formed the basis for the development of a European knowledge based bio-economy, which is now a major priority in the EU.

Can you outline the nature of the collaborative research that the EC-US Task Force has encouraged, and how sponsoring workshops and other activities has had an impact beyond transatlantic cooperation?

The Task Force plays an important role in the development of bioinformatics and neuroinformatics, not only across the Atlantic by sponsoring workshops; furthermore, the discussions in the Task Force have also paved the way for the establishment of the Global Biodiversity Information Facility in Copenhagen in 2001, and the International Neuroinformatics Coordinating Facility in 2007 in Stockholm, under the OECD Megascience Forum.

Would you be able to outline the nature of the short training courses and the short-term fellowship programme that the Task Force sponsors, and explain what results have been yielded from this enterprise?

Since 1995, through the activities of the working group on environmental biotechnology, the Task Force has succeeded in training hundreds of early career scientists through three types of activities:

• Workshops on the use of molecular methods and genomics in environmental biotechnology

• Short courses with theoretical, laboratory and field elements

• Short term exchange fellowships

More than 100 grants have been awarded to postdoctoral students in Europe and the United States, in particular for research on the use of biotechnology and molecular biology, to clean up environmental pollution such as the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The next activities will be a short training course to be held in Switzerland in 2011 and a workshop on ‘Microbial Communities and their Interaction’. New activities will include time for mentoring or coaching sessions for young scientists on career planning.

In many cases, young scientists who were trained in some of the first short-term training and exchange fellowships sponsored by the Task Force, are now leaders in their fields, and continue the transatlantic dialogue which they began as students.

You support discussion on the role of women in science; could you offer an insight into this dialogue?

The Task Force sponsored in 2009 a workshop entitled ‘A Global Look at Women’s Leadership in Biotechnology Research’. The workshop concluded that women are an essential part of the biotechnology workforce, and yet they have often been underrepresented in leadership positions because of the organisational structure and culture in the workplace. The challenges facing the world in the areas of food security, climate change and sustainability are so great that they cannot be tackled successfully without a diverse and fully engaged workforce. The conference concluded that “limiting women’s leadership was limiting the solutions to our global challenges”. Among other ideas, the participants recommended the Task Force establish a League of Universities committed to ‘Diversity Management’ – i.e., fighting the gender paradox and supporting research that addresses global challenges.

How would you sum up the success of the Task Force thus far?

As already mentioned, the Task Force serves as an important think-tank, and provides input to science policy making at both sides of the Atlantic. What makes it unique is its focus on global challenges and how biotechnology can contribute to dealing with them. The work of the Task Force has demonstrated that we are an equal player in determining how front-line scientific research will happen.

This publication expresses the views of the author and should not be regarded as a statement of the official position of the European Commission nor of its Directorate-General for Research.