Nature Outlook 2015: Science Master Class

The tradition continues! Once again our media partner Nature has released a supplement for their publications that covers the research discussed at the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings.

The annual meeting between Nobel laureates and young researchers in Lindau, Germany, provides a unique opportunity to glean gems of advice for a successful career in science. The 2015 meeting cast a spotlight on super-resolution microscopy, as discussed in depth in this Nature Outlook, as well as fields as diverse as memory formation and the Higgs boson.

The supplement is available for free in ist entirety. To access it simply click on the cover below.


Women in Science: Some Global Perspectives

Do women scientists still encounter issues in their careers that men don’t face? What do young scientists think? Does it depend on where the scientist is from? What better place to find out than the Lindau Meeting? This year’s meeting has 650 young researchers from 88 countries, and about 42% of them are women.


Image: Christian Flemming/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

Image: Christian Flemming/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

While the majority agrees that there are issues specific to women that need to be addressed, whether through systemic policies, support or education, it is immediately apparent that more men disagree. 9 out of 25 men surveyed said that they think there is no issue. Some of them don’t see breaks in careers as detrimental; others think the problems are similar for men and women. A few of them, all physicists, honestly admitted that they simply didn’t know enough women scientists to know what the issues are, which makes a case for promoting more awareness. On the other hand there were only 2 women (out of 25) who said they didn’t believe women had it harder than men. “They say that it’s such a big problem. Where I live it’s not hard,” said one young woman from Germany. The majority, however, believed there were differences, the extent and flavor of which were different in different countries and cultures.

“It is an issue, not just in Mauritius, but across Africa,” said Vidushi Neergheen-Bhujun, a member of the Global Young Academy, which has a ‘women in science’ group actively involved in mentoring young women. “Science is still sexist especially in terms of the opportunities we get,” she added. The situation in India is similar in many ways. Seema Mittal, a young scientist at the India Innovation Research Center said, “I see fewer women around me wanting a career in academia given its challenges—bureaucracy, power structures, balancing family.” Networks and mentors go a long way in working around bureaucracy, and she feels men have much stronger networks that they can tap into.

Some cultures pressure women into starting families early. The burden of caregiving also falls largely on the woman in these cultures. Researchers, both men and women, from Pakistan, Cameroon and Iran observed that this was responsible for large numbers of women dropping out of science in their countries. Notably, men from these countries, and from India too, were quick to offer introductions women participants from their countries to talk about these issues—they didn’t perceive themselves as part of this dialogue. To make any progress towards equality, a big part of the efforts in these countries need to focus on raising awareness, both amongst men and women.


Image: R. Schultes/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

Image: R. Schultes/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

There were, however, many women who acknowledged that they had personally never encountered significant bumps in their careers so far on account of their gender. Most of these women were from Europe and the US. But they do foresee problems along the way. “What I notice in my own life and in others is that having a family is when problems come. Universities are supportive; they do want to hire women. But it is hard to make it work especially with the nomadic life of a postdoc. I see a lot of people leave the field if they feel they can’t combine that. It’s not a matter of flat out discrimination. It’s simply that more often, women choose family over career. It’s the way the system is developing,” said Else Starkenburg from the Leibnitz Institute for Astrophysics, Germany.

Starkenburg even spoke at one of the Meeting’s master classes about what she called the “leakiest part of the pipeline” for women, the postdoc years. She proposed several solutions that could help: paid maternity leave, paternal leave options, support for travel with caregivers and child and return/part-time fellowships. She urged people to counter biases with information and also think about their own biases.

In the ensuing audience interaction, one young scientist from Caltech insisted that men need to be invited to participate in this dialogue. “Mandating maternity leave is not a good idea unless you also mandate paternity leave. We keep reinforcing the bias when we talk about it only as women’s issues,” she said.

Following up on her idea, young male scientists were asked whether they would take paternity leave if offered. Only five (out of twenty-five) said yes, they would. Out of these, one of them, a German, had indeed availed of paternity leave, and was happy to report that he hadn’t suffered any adverse consequences as a result. Two others were from Greece. “In Greece, we have mandatory nine months of military service. We take a career break for that anyway. So we don’t think a paternity break will be that different. In fact, we’d much prefer the latter,” they said.

Six out of twenty-five men said they weren’t sure about taking time off and may consider it if the situation allowed it at the time—if their wives worked in a stable, well-paying job or they weren’t in a crucial transition period in their careers. The rest said no, even though some of them had previously acknowledged that women’s issues in science need to be recognized and better support provided. Fifty percent of the men believed it would affect their careers. While the idea of fathers taking time off is still very new, it is being increasingly considered in some countries and may prove to be a good equalizer.

South Africa is among the nations that has done well in promoting women in science. “There is support all the way through our careers. These efforts have been around for about 20 years now, and there is a visible change,” said Deveshnie Mudaly. This is also true of Israel, which offers many schemes and fellowships to support women. Rules that require faculty applicants to do postdocs abroad complicate matters, since it is hard to relocate with family, but efforts are on to change these stipulations.

While the so-called baby penalty monopolizes much of the dialogue about women in science, there are other facets to consider as well. “Women don’t self-nominate themselves for opportunities,” said Laurel Yohe, a young researcher from the US. She added that it is also important for women to be aware of things that are not natural to them, like negotiation skills. “Just being clued in to these things early on would help,” she said. Another problem that repeatedly surfaced was the lack of role models and mentors for young women to look up to and learn from. Even in countries where there are increasing numbers of women students and postdocs, there are significantly lower numbers of women professors. Paige Cooper, also from the US, said, “Having women to talk to would be most useful—women who are older, who are mentors, as well as peers who share my experiences.”

Qianyuan Tang from China pointed out that stereotypes are a big problem. “There is a mistaken notion that women are not good at mathematics. Even though it is not true, hearing it often and from an early age makes some women less confident of their own skills,” he said.

Another policy-level solution that has been tried in Europe is reservation. New laws in many countries require companies to increase the number of women in their boardrooms. This has provoked many mixed reactions. One young female scientist hailing from Italy was against this practice. “Quotas are not good. In many ways, they are counter productive,” she posited. “It is not uncommon to hear people—both men and women—say, that you got the job because you are a woman.”


Image: R. Schultes/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

Image: R. Schultes/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

Nobel Laureate Elizabeth Blackburn has successfully juggled family and career. She believes that good childcare, a supportive spouse and a network of peers can help women sustain their careers in science through the demanding baby years. She maintains, however, that there are significant conscious and unconscious biases that women still have to battle in the workplace. “People will say they are not sexist. But there are a lot of unconscious biases that they are unaware of,” she said. She hopes that things will change, that younger people may have views that are more informed by open discussions of these issues. She is among those who believe that gender quotas would help to counteract unconscious biases.

Many things still need to change to improve the gender balance in science. Some countries have a much longer way to go before they become truly inclusive, while others are farther along that road. It is heartening to note that the women, on the whole, are hopeful and optimistic about the years to come. “Of course, I wish it weren’t an issue any more, but things are definitely much better today,” said Moran Shalev Ben-Ami from Israel. Several scientists pointed out that the Lindau Meeting itself is a case in point—while only 3 out of 65 Nobel Laureates were female, the number of young women scientists attending the Lindau Meeting was almost equal to the number of men. Many young scientists expressed the hope that things will only get better as people age out of preconceived notions that may have existed in the past. The fastest way forward is to be vocal, raise awareness about particular issues, ensure that men are a part of the dialogue and the proposed solutions, and to learn and incorporate successful practices from other countries.

Gene Editing: Zwischen Faszination und Erschrecken über ungeahnte Möglichkeiten. Wohin soll der Weg gehen?

Noch während über ein Moratorium debattiert wird, schlagen die Meldungen aus China ein: Dort ist man einen Schritt weiter. Ist es der entscheidende Schritt? Nicht nur das interessierte Publikum dürfte vom Tempo überrannt sein – kaum jemand weiß so richtig, was Gene-Editing ist, da hört man schon, dass chinesische Wissenschaftler bereits erste Experimente an menschlichen Embryonen durchgeführt haben. Zwar wurden dafür nicht lebensfähige Embryonen benutzt, die im Rahmen künstlicher Befruchtungen entstanden – eine Grenze ist damit dennoch überschritten. Der federführende Wissenschaftler Junjiu Huang gibt eine nüchterne Erklärung ab: „Wir wollten der Welt unsere Daten zeigen, damit jeder weiß, was wirklich passiert bei diesem Modell, statt nur darüber zu reden, was wohl passieren würde, ohne dass jemand Daten hat.“

Doch zunächst einen Schritt zurück – was ist Gene-Editing? Und was sagt eine der führenden Wissenschaftlerinnen auf diesem Gebiet dazu? Jennifer Doudna, die die sogenannte CRISPR/Cas 9 Methode entscheidend mitentwickelt hat, ist eine derer, die dringend eine Diskussion anraten: Welcher Missbrauch ist möglich und wofür wollen Wissenschaft und Gesellschaft sie nutzen. Doudna erlebt dabei das klassische Dilemma einer Verantwortlichkeit für einen Durchbruch, dessen rein wissenschaftlicher Fortschritt eine auch gesellschaftliche Herausforderung bedeutet. Zwar konnten Biologen schon länger das Genom manipulieren – eine Revolution ist CRISPR, weil es, zumindest theoretisch, eine so einfache und kostengünstige Möglichkeit darstellt. „Die Grundlage ist ein Enzym namens Cas9, das mit Hilfe eines kurzen RNA-Schnipsels, der so genannten guide RNA, an seine Ziel-DNA geleitet wird. Dort schneidet es die DNA, wobei Gene zerstört oder gewünschte Sequenzen eingefügt werden können“.

Eine Hoffnung die Entwicklung zu verlangsamen, um eine breit angelegte Diskussion führen zu können, gibt es: Das chinesische Team erzielte keine zufriedenstellenden Ergebnisse. Stoppen aber lassen dürfte sich die weltweite Forschung kaum mehr. Das US National Health Institute hat zwar die Förderung für solche Projekte eingefroren, aber die Verlockungen dürften zu groß sein. Denn krankmachende Gene schlicht zu entfernen und in der Zukunft beispielsweise erblich bedingte Krankheiten komplett aus der Vererbungskette zu löschen, ist zweifelsfrei eine große Vision.

Was das aber zu Ende gedacht bedeuten könnte, kennen wir aus Science Fiction. Die Schicksalsfrage lautet dann: Krankheiten heilen versus Menschen bereits als Embryos zu optimieren.

Entsprechend gespannt erwarteten die Zuhörer heute die Diskussion zum Thema „Human genetic alteration: does the pause have a purpose?“ mit Elisabeth Blackburn, Michael Bishop, Richard J. Roberts und dem Young Scientist Simon Elsässer.


Press Talk mit Simon Elsässer, J. Michael Bishop, Elizabeth Blackburn und Richard J. Roberts (von links nach rechts), Foto: LNLM

Press Talk mit Simon Elsässer, J. Michael Bishop, Elizabeth Blackburn und Richard J. Roberts (von links nach rechts), Foto: LNLM


Kurz zum Forschungshintergrund der Diskussionsteilnehmer: Blackburn erhielt zusammen mit Carol Greider und Jack Szostak 2009 den Nobelpreis in Medizin unter großer medialer Anteilnahme, da ihre Entdeckung der Telomerase mit der Entdeckung des biologischen „Jungbrunnen“ assoziiert wurde, denn die Länge der Telomere steht in Verbindung zum Alterungsprozess. J. Michael Bishop ist einer der Entdecker des zellulären Ursprungs der retroviralen Krebsgene und dieses Jahr zusammen mit Harold Varmus in Lindau, mit dem er 1989 den Nobelpreis in Medizin erhielt. Weiter auf dem Podium: Richard J. Roberts, Medizin-Nobelpreisträger von 1993, der einen Vortrag zum Thema Golden Rice und dem Verhängnis einer seiner Meinung nach falschen politischen Diskussion zum Thema Gentechnik bei Lebensmitteln halten wird (A Crime against Humanity). Und last but not least Simon Elsässer, der auf dem Gebiet der Epigenetik forscht und sein Lab am Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Schweden, betreibt.

Eines wurde durch die Statements der Wissenschaftlerin und der Wissenschaftler schnell klar – sie selbst sehen keine der bereits diskutierten Zukunftsvisionen auch nur in Reichweite. Die Technik sei viel zu schlecht, die Fehlerraten und Probleme zu hoch. Doch dann scheiden sich die Geister. Während Simon Elsässer meint, der Versuch an den Embryonen hätte nicht stattfinden sollen – denn es war klar, dass nichts Vernünftiges dabei herauskommen konnte – sieht Bishop darin keinen Grund, einen solchen Versuch nicht zu unternehmen. Blackburn hält die Technik nicht für so einen großen Durchbruch, wie es dargestellt wird und beantwortet die Frage, ob die Methode nicht Tür und Tor für den Missbrauch bietet, damit, dass einem vor Menschen mit verbrecherischen Absichten auch keine gesetzlichen Regelungen schützen. Roberts hält diese Technik nur für medizinische Zwecke für legitim und vermutet, dass es neue Methoden geben wird, die Wissenschaft sich also auf diesem Gebiet im Übergang befände. Bei der Diskussion über den Sinn eines Moratoriums gibt Roberts zu bedenken, dass die Entwicklung so rasch voranschreitet, die Institutionen zu langsam reagieren und die wissenschaftliche Community deshalb dringend den Dialog mit den chinesischen Wissenschaftlern suchen sollte – es wäre gefährlich die Entwicklung dort einfach zu ignorieren. Internationaler Austausch zum Thema wird also dringend benötigt. Bishop könnte sich auch ein Internationales Abkommen vergleichbar dem, das aus der Stammzellen-Diskussion hervorging, vorstellen.

65th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, Lindau, Germany, Picture/Credit: Adrian Schröder/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings, 29 June 2015 Elizabeth Blackburn, Michael Bishop, Richard Roberts, Presstalk at Forum am See No Model Release. No Property Release. Fre

Diskussion im “Forum am See” mit gespanntem Publikum; Foto: LNLM

Alle Beteiligten der Podiumsdiskussion denken, dass der Hype um CRISPR aus der Tatsache resultiert, dass diese Methode so einfach und kostengünstig ist. Dafür aber eben auch zu ungenau – und die daraus entstehenden „off-target-Effekte“ sind noch nicht verstanden. Elsässer plädiert dafür, so lange es so viele Unwägbarkeiten gibt, beim Maus-Modell zu bleiben.

Die Wissenschaftscommunity sollte für Transparenz sorgen und die Presse sachlich über die neue Technik und ihre Begrenzungen berichten, um Ängste abzubauen. In diesem Sinne werden wir weiter zum Thema berichten.