A life in science with Professor Ole Petersen#

An interview by the Cardiff Knowledge Hub with Professor Ole Petersen, winner of Academia Europaea’s Gold Medal 2021 and the Cardiff Knowledge Hub’s Academic Director. Professor Petersen spoke about the honour of receiving the Gold Medal, the current challenges he sees for science, and also shared personal reflections on his career.

Professor Ole Petersen

Congratulations on receiving Academia Europaea’s Gold Medal. What does the medal mean to you, having been with Academia Europaea from its very beginning?

“In a year that has been remarkable for me because of several honours – including election as one of only thirty inaugural Fellows worldwide of the International Union of Physiological Sciences, and being invited to deliver the inaugural Sir Michael Berridge Memorial Lecture at the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology’s 2021 Calcium and Cell Function conference – the award of Academia Europaea’s Gold Medal stands out as the most important such event. This is due to my sincere admiration for those who have previously been given the Gold Medal.

Robert-Jan Smits (Gold Medal 2018), the ‘architect’ of the European Research Council (ERC) and the European Commission’s Scientific Advice Mechanism, inspired me to become actively engaged in the open access movement. The late Klaus Tschira (Gold Medal 2004), gave me the opportunity, when I was Chair of the Academy’s Physiology & Medicine Section (1995-2006), to organise an annual symposium (fully funded by the Klaus Tschira Foundation) on a topic of my own choice in his beautiful conference centre in Heidelberg. I also felt a strong affinity with the late Paul Sacher (Gold Medal 1998), who with his commissions did so much to further the recognition of the great Hungarian composer Bela Bartok. My mother, who was a classical pianist and grew up in Budapest, had piano lessons with Bartok for a couple of years in the 1930s.

For me, it was a particular honour and pleasure to receive the Gold Medal from our President, Sierd Cloetingh, for whom I have enormous admiration and respect, and who of course has played a decisive role in securing a central position for Academia Europaea in the European academic landscape.”

Professor Ole Petersen
Academia Europaea’s Gold Medal being awarded to Professor Petersen. From left to right: Professor Éva Kondorosi MAE; Nina Burdakova;Ole Petersen, Vice-President of Academia Europaea; Professor Sierd Cloetingh, President of Academia Europaea

In your Gold Medal lecture, you shared some of the key moments in your career and significant moments of change you’ve seen across Europe. What do you think are the key challenges for science and science advice in Europe at the moment?

“There are many ‘intrinsic’ scientific challenges, which are different for each field, but with regard to science organisation and funding, the most important challenge – as I mentioned in my Award Lecture in Barcelona – is to create a much more equitable distribution of science funding in Europe. The disparities in this respect between the relatively rich EU countries in the North-Western part of Europe and those in the East and South-East are really worrying. This problem is holding back the whole of Europe, because we are unable to exploit all the great talents in this part of the world. This matters in itself, considering the many and very considerable scientific and medical challenges we face, but also weakens us internationally, particularly in the increasingly intense competition with China.

Some might argue that it does not matter in which geographical location scientific work is being carried out, as long as the results are available in the public domain so that every country can benefit from the new knowledge. However, a strong science base makes a country more powerful, as well as having major educational benefits locally. Countries with a strong science base also become particularly influential internationally with regard to the increasing number of issues that can only be solved by evidence-informed policymaking.

In the EU, for example, the Scientific Advice Mechanism (SAM) relies on Evidence Review Reports produced for SAPEA (Science Advice for Policy by European Academies) – of which Academia Europaea is a very active member – by working groups composed of experts in the relevant fields. Countries with a strong science base will inevitably have a better chance of being represented on these working groups than those without such expertise, and will therefore be more influential with regard to overall policymaking.

Ultimately, the prosperity of Europe depends on scientific knowledge and the ability to apply this knowledge, and we need all parts of Europe to be fully enabled to participate. In spite of very great efforts, particularly by Eva Kondorosi, one of Academia Europaea’s Board members, Chief Scientific Advisor to the European Commission and former Vice-President of the ERC, there has been insufficient action, including by the ERC, to solve this problem.

The European Commission’s Scientific Advice Mechanism in which, as already mentioned, Academia Europaea participates very actively and successfully as one of the key partners in SAPEA, is working well, but could and should – in my personal opinion – operate on a much larger scale than at present. In those specific instances where we have been able to produce Evidence Review Reports, they have made a significant impact, but there are very many areas and problems that have not been addressed. An expansion of the role of SAPEA and SAM is of course ultimately a question of funding by the European Commission. We (SAPEA) are also hampered by the short-term nature of our funding, which means that too much of our effort has to be focused on the sustainability of the advice mechanism.”

In 2016, you helped to establish the Academia Europaea Cardiff Knowledge Hub. As Academic Director of the Hub, what are your personal highlights from the past five years?

“Although our Hub was formally launched at Academia Europaea’s Annual Conference held in Cardiff in 2016, the Hub was actually already operational, and funded by Cardiff University, in 2015. It was in fact at a regional meeting in Kyiv, Ukraine in 2015, at which our President, Sierd Cloetingh, Eva Kondorosi and myself were present, that I was asked whether the Cardiff Hub would be able to take on the co-ordination and supervision of Academia Europaea’s work for what (in 2016) became SAPEA. I saw this as a major challenge, but also a wonderful opportunity for Cardiff, and so it has been. As mentioned in my Award Lecture in Barcelona, it was a great luck for me to have been able to engage Louise Edwards as our Hub Manager. Louise’s great European experience and her enormous energy and drive have done much to secure the success of our work for SAPEA, and this has obviously become a defining feature of the Cardiff Hub.

The 2018 celebration of the 30th Anniversary of Academia Europaea at the Royal Society, which we organised, was certainly also one of the highlights, both for the Hub and indeed for the whole of the Academy. Another particular highlight was the Open Access Conference at KU Leuven in 2019, organised by the Cardiff Hub. The practical organisation was, as always, very efficiently managed by Juliet Davies and this very well attended meeting was a huge success.

More recently, in the ‘pandemic period’, we have organised a number of well attended webinars. The most important, in terms of international visibility, was the one organised in co-operation with SAPEA and the European Parliament in June 2021, concerning biodegradable plastics (arising from the Evidence Review Report on this topic that we Academia Europaea produced, on behalf of SAPEA, for the European Commission). At this webinar, we had more than 300 attendees from all over the world and the active participation of three MEPs, in addition to the Chair of the Group of Chief Scientific Advisors and the Deputy Director General of Research & Innovation. It was a great pleasure and privilege for me to chair this event and I think it did much to enhance our reputation.”

You’re a supporter of the open access movement and for scientific publications to be freely available to all. Why do you think open access is so important, for both researchers and the public?

“It is a question of allowing as many people as possible to benefit from the scientific knowledge that has been created. In my own field of physiology and medicine, it is not only other researchers who need to be able to read the relevant scientific literature, but also the practitioners who have to apply the knowledge in actual patient care, as well as administrators and funders who need to be aware of new knowledge, in order to be able to create the best framework within which this knowledge can be applied for the benefit of society and individuals.

In this respect, I think that open access is essential for the effectiveness of translational medicine and this is a point I shall be making when I give my lecture at the Semmelweis Symposium on this topic in Budapest – organised by one of our prominent MAEs, Peter Hegyi - in a few weeks’ time. When, as is unfortunately still the case, a large number of scientific articles are behind paywalls, many individuals have difficulties getting access to major parts of the literature. This hampers progress and limits the opportunities for many to actively participate in the scientific efforts on the basis of up-to-date information. At the same time, the profits of many commercial publishers, through subscription income and article processing charges, are enormous. This is money – ultimately provided by the taxpayer – that could have been used for supporting more researchers and their work.

The many fully open access journals that now exist, and I am currently Editor-in-Chief of one of them, namely the American Physiological Society’s Function, have improved the overall situation, but we still have a long way to go before the whole of this complex problem has been solved. It obviously costs money to produce scientific journals, but there is no need for the excessive profits made by many commercial publishers. Surprisingly, too many scientists continue to primarily support commercial for-profit journals, by submitting their work to them, rather than support the journals published by their own scientific societies’ non-profit journals.

The power to change things lie in the hands of individual researchers and the large funding bodies, but it is undeniable that after Robert-Jan Smits’ departure from the European Commission, to become President of Eindhoven University of Technology, momentum has been lost.”

Finally, what piece of advice would you give to yourself as a young academic or to other people who are beginning their academic careers now?

“Young academics now have a much more difficult time than I had when I started out on my research career in the 1960s. The pressures from excessive teaching commitments, due to rising student numbers, and more and more complicated and time-consuming administrative arrangements, combined with an over-competitive funding situation, have conspired to create a really challenging environment for Early Career Researchers.

Specifically, the opportunity to independently pursue your own personal objectives early on have become severely limited. Most young scientists now need to complete two or more periods as post-doctoral research fellows before they, with some luck, can obtain an independent position. Having obtained such a position, the fight for funding begins. In contrast, I could choose my research area freely, and immediately after graduation in medicine I obtained a lectureship at the University of Copenhagen. There was no need for external funding at that time and I was given a full time technical assistant by the University. The amount of teaching required was very modest. Furthermore, there was no requirement for constant reporting. There were no audits and very few administrative meetings. Such academic freedom does not exist anymore. Nevertheless, some fundamentals remain. Science is exciting and it is a privilege to be able to devote a substantial amount of your time to pursue your personal interests.

A young academic setting out on a research career has to make important choices concerning the area of research and their supervisor. Both are vitally important. It is not necessarily the best idea to select one of the currently most fashionable research fields, which will often turn out to be over-crowded and super-competitive. I started out working in a small and esoteric field, but I was lucky enough to very quickly become recognised as an expert in exocrine gland secretory mechanisms and this opened up many exciting opportunities for development and eventually allowed me to make contributions of general importance to physiology, medicine and cell biology.

So, I think that a young investigator should select an area, appropriate to their personal interests and capabilities, without any regard for what is currently fashionable (fashions will in any case change, probably several times during a life time). With regard to supervisors, it is also not necessarily best to go for the most famous person in the field. One should select a supervisor, who will actually supervise, and a laboratory in which one would not just be yet another post-doc amongst far too many others. I have seen young scientists going to very famous and large labs only to be given impossible projects, just because the supervisor wanted to test a ‘far-out’ possibility. A big lab can afford to take such risks because there are many projects running and the majority will work out, but an individual could be very unlucky.

When I started out doing experimental research work, while still an undergraduate medical student, I had no supervisor but did benefit from informal advice from two very different senior members of staff in the Physiology Department at the University of Copenhagen. One was very supportive and encouraging, but relatively uncritical, whereas the other was extremely critical and often appeared rather negative. I could easily have avoided the critical individual, as there were no formal mentoring requirements at that time, but I understood that although the encounters with the critical staff member were often quite unpleasant, I did learn a great deal from them, enabling me to do much better. As the great Calvinist novelist Marilynne Robinson writes in ‘Home’: “Experience had taught them that truth has sharp edges and hard corners, and could be seriously at odds with kindness.” Today, there is, in my opinion, too much emphasis on requiring mentors and supervisors to be constantly encouraging at the expense of being critical of errors and sloppiness. In their own interest, young investigators should not only seek comfort, but also even severe criticism.

Science is a very competitive business and this has to be taken into account by anyone embarking on a research career. In the many years when I was a member of the Scientific Advisory Board of the Max-Planck Institute for Biophysics in Frankfurt, we often met in the neighbouring administrative building of the pharmaceutical company Hoechst (now part of the Sanofi pharmaceuticals group). On the wall of the impressive Board room was written in large letters: “Für Erfolg gibt es keinen Ersatz” (there is no replacement for success). This is true also for the scientific endeavour. Even very valid excuses for failure are in the end of little interest to anyone.”
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