Building effective research environments: An interview with Kai Simons#

In this interview, Kai Simons, member of the Cell and Developmental Biology section since 1989, reflects on life as a scientist and entrepreneur, described in his autobiography ‘The Magic of the Collective’.

Professor Kai Simons
Professor Kai Simons

About Kai Simons#

Kai Simons MAE is a distinguished Finnish professor of biochemistry and cell biology. Currently residing in Germany, Simons is renowned for introducing the concept of lipid rafts and coining the term trans-Golgi network, both of which have had profound impacts on our understanding of cell biology.

As a co-founder and key figure in the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) and the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO), Professor Simons has been instrumental in shaping the landscape of molecular biology research in Europe. His efforts also led to the establishment of the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden, where he served as a director and continues to influence as Director Emeritus.

In addition to his academic and research achievements, Simons is a successful entrepreneur, having co-founded Lipotype GmbH, a biotech company focused on lipidomics. His extensive body of work includes over 350 scientific articles and numerous accolades, reflecting his enduring impact on the field of molecular cell biology. In recognition of his groundbreaking work, Simons has been elected to several prestigious academic institution in addition to the Academia Europaea, including the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the National Academy of Sciences (NAS).

Through his autobiography, ''The Magic of the Collective'', Simons reflects on modern scientific research, including the dominance of competition over collaboration, scientific fraud and whistleblowing, and the dichotomy between science and the arts, offering inspiration to the next generation of scientists.

Read the interview#

Your memoir The Magic of the Collective charts your fascinating career path against the backdrop of major changes in Europe, both politically and in science policy. What do you see as some of the positive changes, and the main challenges over the past half-century?

I started my research in Helsinki, and published my first paper in 1958 in The Lancet as a Letter to the Editor. Sixty-six years later, I am looking back at my life in research and reflecting on the enormous changes that the biomedicine research landscape has undergone during this time. There are more researchers, funding opportunities, research institutes and journals. One of the positive features has been the active role that the EU has played in improving the research climate. The founding of the European Research Council (ERC) was phenomenal. Young scientists are now in a much better position to start an independent research career in Europe compared to the US.

Another positive change is that there are now so many excellent research institutes, which provide great working conditions for ambitious young researchers in Europe. Overall, research institutions are very much improved compared to how they were when I began my research career. At that time, most of the ambitious young researchers went to the US to do their postdoctoral training, and many stayed as assistant professors to start their independent research careers there. It is important to acknowledge the substantial role that the EU has played in improving research conditions in Europe.

One problem in need of a solution is the current publication process in biology and medicine. The process places an enormous burden on all researchers today. How scientific papers are reviewed makes little sense to me. Editors are more or less powerless in comparison to the role they played in earlier years. The reviewers have adopted a style that enables them to block or delay publication. The challenge of publishing is scaring many competent young researchers away from continuing in science.

Another problem is that experimental molecular work is going downhill worldwide. Biochemistry is losing its appeal, and imaging in all its new facets is taking over. How can we understand biological mechanisms without experimental laboratory work? There is a misconception that AI can do experiments that biochemists previously did in the laboratory. There is also the issue of the lack of quantitative methods, for which the omics field is an illustrative example.

Furthermore, scientific research in biomedicine is suffering from a huge cost increase. New methods and instruments are being introduced to the research community at such a rate that it is difficult to come up with solutions efficiently and cost-effectively. We need a greater concentration of resources to organise the different facilities (for example, imaging) and we need to do biomedical research in such a way that researchers have access to affordable, effective resources.

I also question whether we are training too many scientists in the wrong way. The number of PhDs being trained has gone up astronomically during my time in research. This has led to an increase in the size of successful research groups. Mentoring does not work as it should, and the working atmosphere deteriorates. Apparently, one-third of all PhD students suffer from mental problems. The PhD system has to be reformed.

Finally it’s important to acknowledge that the present system does not promote multidisciplinary research, as research groups in biomedicine are too large. Often, group leaders are too busy with a large group of scientists to train and mentor others. My book, The Magic of the Collective, shows that it is possible to organise research environments that function effectively, with positive working conditions.

What do you think will be the main changes in science policy over the coming decade?

The greatest and most important challenge for the biomedical research community is how to produce innovative solutions for a changing world. We have to be able to attract the best young talent, and for that we have to create environments where our working conditions and research themes are attractive.

My own subjective impression is that although the number of researchers has dramatically increased, it is not obvious that this has led to more innovation. More of the same is what mainstream research produces, at great cost. The goal of science policy in Europe should be to counter these tendencies with new initiatives. We need research structures that are capable of producing inventions and discoveries that lead to a sustainable quality of life for everyone on this planet.

In 2012 you set up a spinoff biotech company, Lipotype, of which you are still CEO. How easy has it been to combine the roles of scientist and entrepreneur, and what lessons have you learned from the experience?

Lipotype started 10 years ago. We moved from cell membrane research to lipidomics, with the hope that lipids would promote new products for a better life. Lipid research had a hard time during the DNA revolution and was fading into the background. I thought it was time to find out whether lipids/lipidomics could be useful for biomedicine.

Fortunately, this has indeed turned out to be the case. Lipotype is about to close a glaring gap in laboratory diagnostics. We are experiencing a pandemic that is ruining people’s lives – obesity. The industry is bombarding people with ultra-processed foods, snacks, and sweet drinks that cause the body metabolism to go awry, and this in turn leads to non-communicable diseases such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, dementia and cancer. The catastrophe is that we have no diagnostic test to warn people with increasing weight that they should change their lifestyle before it is too late.

Lipotype is now introducing a lipidomic metabolic test that differentiates between metabolic health and disease from a drop of blood. We hope that our at-home assay will boost prevention. Why wait until people fall ill, when the most important diseases that we suffer from can be prevented by a change of lifestyle?

For me, it hasn’t been challenging to combine the role of scientist and entrepreneur. I have a talent for assembling productive teams. I’ve had to introduce business expertise into the Lipotype team, and this has succeeded. The difference between running a research institute and a company is that the company has to sell its R&D products to stay alive. We managed to do so by providing lipidomics analyses to academia and industry worldwide.

Now we are moving one step further, and Lipotype is generating innovative products that we can sell. To achieve this we had to generate funding beyond our revenue from sales of lipidomic analyses.

The same applies to academic research. Currently, the basic science component is under threat, and needs to be funded and protected. At the same time, more attention has to be given to translational projects. Research projects that will increase global or local sustainability, or projects that provide novel ways to combat climate change, make research more attractive to young researchers and society.

What strategies can universities implement to promote multidisciplinary research? In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges facing this and how can they be overcome?

From the long list of authors on scientific articles that you see today one would think that multidisciplinary research is in a good shape. However, the opposite is true.

Multidisciplinary research certainly needs more attention. In order to improve our performance, we need to review the way we train and do research. Multidisciplinary research is a must in today’s research environment, because we are trying to get away from reductionist approaches and include more context in the analysis – unfortunately without much success so far.

Our undergraduate training programmes need to prepare students, by providing the necessary know-how in such a way that those who want to engage in research have their own specialty, but are also trained to understand the language and methodology of other disciplines. This attempt to increase the preparedness for multidisciplinary work has to continue throughout one’s research career, all the way from PhD to principal investigator stage.

What’s important is that research institute structures adapt to cope with the multidisciplinary requirements of the research themes chosen. Policies have to be planned in such a way that an overall expertise is achieved by hiring professors and investigators who can potentially contribute to analysing the problems that have been selected for study. In Dresden, we have constructed a new environment which we call the “physics of life.

The biggest challenge to this strategy is the difficulty of aligning a scientist’s goals who has been trained to focus solely on themselves and their own work. Working together has to be learned by actually doing it. Above all, the creation of collaborative environments needs generous leaders who not only work for their own benefit but understand that sharing is a prerequisite for creating environments that promote research breakthroughs in biology and medicine. The problems that we want to solve are much too complex for the old, fragmented and self-centred approach. My book discusses this and explains how we created sharing research environments in Helsinki, Heidelberg, and Dresden.

Learning from Kai Simons’ approach to creating optimal research environments
by Marja Makarow, President of Academia Europaea#

Marja Makarow
Marja Makarow, President of Academia Europaea

I first met Kai when I started my PhD training in the Medical Faculty at the University of Helsinki. I found myself in a modern, multi-disciplinary team consisting of three PIs and their groups – something totally unexpected. In addition to my supervisor, Kai was one of the PIs. These three PIs had combined their expertise in nucleic acids, proteins, lipids, intracellular organelles and the plasma membrane to unravel eukaryotic cell functions, using an enveloped RNA virus as a model.

After Kai had been called to the newly established European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg, I followed him there. I successfully completed a 2-year post-doc, which launched my independent PI career upon my return to Helsinki. Years later, I met Kai again. He was the process of moving from EMBL to Dresden to establish a new Max-Planck Institute, and I was Finland’s scientific representative on EMBL’s Council.

During my post-doc and Council membership, I gained experience on some of the fundamental issues that I have needed over the decades that I have worked on boards and advisory councils at top universities, reviewing the performance of research funding agencies, research organisations and national research and innovation systems, and on advisory bodies to the Finnish Government and the European Union. The aspects of the EMBL model that I have followed are, for example, a flat organisation; no vertical structural borders between units; accessible state-of-the-art core facilities; global open calls in recruitment; staff diversity in gender, nationality and cultural background; first-class PhD training; and external advice from a body of top scientists.

These were the strategies and practices I also followed when I got the mandate from the Ministry of Education and Helsinki University’s Rector to establish the Institute of Molecular Medicine Finland (FIMM) as a unit outside of the faculty system. FIMM today excels in personalised medicine research and clinical practice, supported by an International Advisory Board that Kai chaired for several years.

It was a pleasure to read Kai’s book, in which he so convincingly describes the characteristics of an optimal research environment that allows individual talent to bloom.

Marja Makarow, President of Academia Europaea

The interview was posted on the 8th July 2024 and conducted by the Academia Europaea Cardiff Knowledge Hub.
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