Face to face with the co-directors

The co-directors Oliver Mühlemann (OM) and Frédéric Allain (FA) give in this interview their personal account and opinions on the origins, state and future directions of the NCCR RNA & Disease.

Let’s start with a look back to the origins of the NCCR. How did you come up with the idea to start a big research network around RNA topics?

OM: Well, the story stretches back quite a bit. Fred and I, together with two other group leaders, obtained a Sinergia grant in the year 2011 to elucidate the role of the RNA-binding protein FUS in neurodegeneration. Through this collaboration, we met regularly. Furthermore, we both were part of an earlier NCCR application in 2008, which was called “Ribonet” and coordinated by Christian Leumann.

Which was not successful, right?

OM: No. But it was close. We made it to the last round, but when the final proposals were discussed by the SERI on a political level, after the SNSF had finished its scientific evaluations, we were not among the chosen projects.

Do you have an idea why things did not work out on the first go?

OM: Yes, we have a suspicion. For the second try four years later, we made sure the title of the project was catchier, having at least one word in the title non-scientists would understand.

FA: Which is a bit silly, because the disease aspect was already central in the “Ribonet” project, it was just not showing up in the title. Including it in the title obviously helped selling the idea at the political level.

"The goal of an NCCR is to create research that didn’t already exist."

Well done, one might say: sex – aka disease – sells. But the disease aspect is much more than just a good selling point, right?

FA: Absolutely. The goal of an NCCR is to create research that didn’t already exist, so we were always very sure about this: We wanted to push the eminent basic research about RNA towards elucidating disease mechanisms and potentially finding actual cures.

Which brings us to the art of actually running an NCCR. How can you as directors make sure the research is going in the ‘right’ direction?

OM: We never had a top down approach to this, the project ideas need to come bottom up from the labs. We as directors are not directing the research, we can only set criteria on choosing the most interesting projects.

FA: Which will actually become much more important now, starting the second phase of the NCCR. This second phase should lead to tangible results, as in phase 3 there will be a lot less money, which will be dedicated to projects that are close to potential applications. So we need to make sure that already phase 2 focuses more on actual clinically relevant solutions.

OM: That was the goal, right from the start. We knew that we have a group of people that is very strong in basic research, and we wanted to lead them towards thinking about making that knowledge useful in the clinic.

So how does that work, strategically? How do you set incentives? In other words: How do you make sure your project leaders are not just using the NCCR as a cash cow and continue to follow their own research interests? And rather connect and identify with the ‘mission’ of the NCCR?

FA: Well, frankly: You cannot force somebody to be bound to a network.

OM: Exactly. So far, we have given our Principal Investigators a lot of freedom. All you can do basically is sending out invitations to collaborate, to connect and make use of the network.

"They all say the network is the most important part of the NCCR."

And these invitations have been accepted well?

OM: Very well, by and large. We are pretty happy about how most of the PIs do see themselves as part of a research network, and how new collaborations come out of the NCCR.

FA: Of course, some take these opportunities, some don’t. Which is fine, as long as it is a majority that actually supports and nurtures the network. But whether they are actively “networking” or not, we get the same feedback from everyone: they all say the network is the most important part of the NCCR.

I’m a bit surprised to hear you stressing this aspect that much. I would expect especially young researchers to come up with collaborative projects anyway, to connect with colleagues and enlarge their toolbox?

FA: No, in the biosciences it is still very common to publish papers with very few authors. That might be different in other fields like particle physics, but we still have to work on that. A typical career path is certainly not encouraging collaborations.

Which measures have proved especially useful to strengthen the network?

FA: I think most important are the retreats. The NCCR is hosting a yearly retreat for its researchers which is very popular.

OM: And now we are doing a dedicated one for PhD students as well, as a bi-annual summer school. These are great opportunities to meet other people, to learn about different perspectives on our field. Of course, we are all into RNA as a general topic, but method-wise there can be huge differences. The retreats allow you to open your scope and to consider new approaches.

Anything else you want to mention as a ‘network enhancer’?

OM: The technology platforms are a crucial aspect as well. They are kind of a toolbox, open for everybody. The idea is to share techniques as well as expertise within the whole NCCR network so that they can easily be used by anybody else as well.

So that’s for the networking and the fostering of innovative ideas. Besides that, the SNSF stresses other aspects as key features of an NCCR, such as “education” and “promotion of women”. How about that?

FA: We have installed a Predoc program, which in its second year is working out very well, after a bit of a difficult start. It consists of a one year fellowship for young students, something of a tryout: They rotate in three different groups in different cities to learn about all kinds of RNA research.

OM: It is a pioneer initiative, and it seems to develop into a nice success – I guess that is the kind of extra efforts the SNSF wants to see.

And how about the promotion of women? What have you achieved there?

OM: We are not doing too bad, I would say. The start was poor, honestly, with only 2 women amongst more 16 PIs. Now the ratio is 6 out of 24. And we keep on working on this.

FA: For instance, we are developing programs to keep women in science. Pregnancy and motherhood is a big issue here – this is still a reason for a lot of excellent female researchers to halt a promising career. Therefore, we have come up with a support program that pays for a lab technician to be instructed before maternity leave who can then carry on with the project for some months. This way, the research project does not just lay still in absence of the young mother. And she can just take over the project running on full steam after the maternity leave.

OM: Another successful initiative we have started: women only lunches. Whenever we have a female speaker in our NCCR seminar series, we organize a lunch during which our female researchers can meet their prominent colleague. I hear they are very popular and have quite an impact, on a confidence level. Sometimes all you need is a good role model, showing you that it can be done, that there is nothing special about being a woman and a successful researcher at the same time.

"We seem to agree at least 95 percent of the time."

How do you feel about all these extra responsibilities that come with your job as NCCR directors? Do you fear that they absorb too much of your time? Or do you feel issues like gender equality are essential for your work as well?

OM: Well, yes, it is a lot of work – I probably wouldn’t have put that many hours into these kind of topics, even if I am very aware of gender issues myself. But you are co-delegate for equal opportunities, Fred, you have to answer that question.

FA: I actually see it as another opportunity to network. There is a whole week conference coming up about promotion of women in research networks, and I’m very much looking forward to attending it. This is time very well spent.

So, on the other hand: are there parts of your director’s job you don’t enjoy particularly?

FA: I would say the only part I really do not like is the annual review. The rest is not a burden of any kind.

OM: Yes, the annual reviewing process is definitely an overkill. I think one could easily do this every second year. Or, even every four years, like they do in Germany with their SFBs.

FA: Then again, it has to be said that the processes have been useful as well, even if they are a great expenditure, we’ve got a lot of valuable feedback. All in all, things are definitely less bureaucratic here than in other countries, so we should not complain too much.

Let’s close with a little résumé after the first 4 years. Can you give us each a personal highlight?

OM: I would choose the summer schools and the retreats. They have proven to be full of enriching experiences, scientifically as well as personally

FA: For me, it is the networking aspect.

OM: Yes, absolutely, I would agree on that. What we have achieved in terms of networking.

And how was the experience of working as co-directors?

FA: I must say, working with Oliver has been a great joy – we seem to agree at least 95 percent of the time. This is really valuable.

OM: Same here.

"There are plenty of interesting stories ... We just need to tell them."

But everything can’t be sweetness and light, right? Do you see weak spots as well, with potential for improvement?

OM: Well, there is another aspect in the NCCR requirements that we certainly have to put more effort into: knowledge and technology transfer. In particular, the SNSF appears to have high expectations when it comes to patents and foundations of startups, that is a tough one. But Jonathan Hall, our knowledge & technology transfer delegate is doing a great job, so I hope we will be seeing positive results there in phase 2 and 3.

FA: And we are investing more into outreach, also to the general public – we are building up a new communication strategy, actually, together with a professional communication agency. There are plenty of interesting stories when it comes to RNA and the body and diseases. We just need to tell them. 

Interview by Roland Fischer