"Lindau: an incredibly inspiring opportunity"

July 17, 2018

Once every year, around 30 Nobel Laureates convene at Lindau to meet the next generation of leading scientists: 500–600 undergraduates, PhD students, and post-doc researchers from all over the world. The Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings foster the exchange between scientists of different generations, cultures, and disciplines. This year Lieneke Janssen from MPI CBS was one of the young scientists. Here she gives an insight into this unique experience and her favourite talks.

Imagine a small island in a beautiful turquoise lake. The island is populated by 39 Nobel prize winners and 600 young, excited scientists. The last week of June, the island of Lindau in Lake Constance was exactly like that. I was one of the lucky young scientists to be there as one of the representatives of Max Planck Society, a dream come true.

Every year, Lindau hosts the largest Nobel laureate meeting in the world and invites some of the greatest minds of our time to educate, inspire and connect to young scientists. Together they discuss some of the big discoveries that led to Nobel prizes, as well as important open questions and challenges for science. This year’s meeting on physiology and medicine had a strong focus on genetics, epigenetics, immunology and neuroscience. But also topics like the future of precision medicine, today’s “publication crisis”, and how to regain trust in science from society and politics were on the agenda. Video recordings of all lectures, panel discussions and agora talks are openly shared in the Nobel Lindau Mediatheque. Here are four of my favorites:

Tip 1: Edvard Moser on the neural code for space and time

Edvard Moser gave an excellent lecture on the discovery of place and grid cells, the cells in the brain that constitute a positioning system. He also went into some more recent work showing the coding of time in the brain, which has strong implications for our understanding of memory and the decisions we make. The lecture is a great introduction to work of our brand new MPI-CBS director Christian Doeller, who is working in this exciting field.

Tip 2: Torsten Wiesel on the art of exploration in science

Ninety-four year old Torsten Wiesel, who reminds of the 100-year old man who climbed out of the window and disappeared, took us on a trip through his remarkable career. With a medical, but no PhD degree, Wiesel managed to spend 40 years of his life exploring the visual cortex together with his science brother David Hubel. Why did he give up on his medical career to pursue a career in science? Simple. He wanted to explore in order to really understand the basis of things. Science allowed him to do exactly that. He phrased it poetically: “If you find a nice flower in a forest, observe it. Don’t just pick it up and say ‘Look what I found!’” Today, even within the field of science it’s good to be reminded of this. 

Tip 3: Michael Levitt on the importance of basic research and on how to get many Nobel Prizes

In a very engaging lecture, Michael Levitt discussed the importance of basic science. He emphasized that the older generation of scientists has to give way to the young, for science to flourish. Unfortunately, this is not what is happening right now as he showed in his slides. In granting and hiring committees, ‘40 is the new 20’. With as a result that more and more money goes to people over 55 years old, and less to the younger ones. And that is bad news for science, Levitt argues, ‘because young people are special, they don’t know too much yet’. Instead of being stuck on old ideas, they are good at generating new ones that may move science forward faster.

Levitt also kindly shared his thoughts on the optimal conditions for in an institute for winning many Nobel prizes. What is so special about institutes that got many of them is that there is (1) ample research support, (2) no visible bureaucracy, (3) a structure of many small research groups, (4) much collaboration with peers, (5) intense peer pressure, and (6) no hierarchy, the students were as good as the Nobel laureates. Perhaps we can learn from this!

Tip 4: Panel discussion on the “publication crisis”

A heated panel discussion on the current publication crisis and publish-or-perish dilemma was the result of an interesting combination of panelists: Nature Springer CEO Daniel Ropers, researcher and EMBO director Maria Leptin, PhD student Amy Shepherd, Nobel laureate and first editor of eLife Randy Schekmann, and Nobel laureate and co-founder of PLoS Harold Varmus.

Now what can we do as? First of all, we must actively take the publishing process back in our own hands (e.g. the EMBO journals, eLife and PLoS) instead of outsourcing it to money-making machines. Sometimes we need to remember what the goal of publishing is: disseminating knowledge, not boosting silly misleading metrics. And we need to stop evaluating science based on such silly misleading metrics when hiring people or evaluating grant applications. Let applicants provide a narrative of the impact of some of their publications, for example. When publishing work, we can share it on preprint servers before we submit it to speed up dissemination of knowledge. We can also select the journals we publish in based on their reputation rather than their impact factor (quality over quantity). If you want to show your support as a scientist, lab or institute, you can sign the San Franscisco Declaration on Research Assessment as a scientist, lab or institute (https://sfdora.org/read) and live by it.

And finally: What did I take home from the meeting?

The Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting was an incredible and unique opportunity to get inspired and educated by, and connected with many other excited researchers, both young and old. Most encouraging was the resonance I felt with many of the laureates in terms of holding dear to values like kindness, honesty, openness and curiosity in science, rather than fierce competition. Today, I am convinced more than ever that a ‘slow’ kind of science, where we leave more room for mentoring and kindness, for constructive peer-review and open access publishing, and where we invest time in communicating science to a broader audience, will ultimately speed up science. Michael Rosbash said it nicely: “cream rises to the top.. you just don’t know how long it takes.”

Lieneke Janssen

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