News Report / Profile
Interview with Professor Maria do Carmo-Fonseca, Director of the Institute of Molecular Medicine
As part of the celebration of the 10th anniversary of the Institute of Molecular Medicine, Professor Carmo-Fonseca gave us an interview in which she speaks about the origins and success of the Institute.
1. The Institute of Molecular Medicine was set up from existing centres of the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Lisbon. How did this “merger” take place?
The birth of the Institute of Molecular Medicine (IMM) was the answer to a challenge posed by the Ministry of Science in the late 1990s. This challenge was the creation of large research centres throughout the country in all fields of knowledge. The keyword for these new centres, called Associate Laboratories, was to achieve a critical mass of researchers. In other words, an Associate Laboratory would have to be a centre larger than any of the research units that existed at the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Lisbon (FMUL). Then, the directors of the research units within FMUL which had been rated between very good and excellent by the Foundation for Research and Technology (FCT) analysed, discussed and negotiated the matter. The talks went well and all acknowledged the advantages of turning the small existing centres into an Associate Laboratory of FMUL. This process took place between 2000 and 2001 and culminated with the creation of the Institute of Molecular Medicine (IMM).
2. Later, how did the interconnection with the clinical area happen, namely the direct contact with the real problems of medicine?
There was already strong clinical research in the centres that merged to give origin to the IMM, particularly in the fields of Neurology, AIDS and Nutrition. However, what represented a major change in the IMM was the coming of young researchers trained in the best centres in the world. These young people brought a new spirit, other ways of thinking and additional skills. During the first years of the IMM, we invested in recruiting excellent researchers, regardless of their area of expertise. Then, the interaction with clinicians, especially from Santa Maria Hospital, started to emerge naturally and spontaneously. The result has been a progressive broadening of the clinical specialties where research is done, with special emphasis on Rheumatology, Oncology, Dermatology, Haematology, Genetics, and Surgery. Another very important factor for the development of research conducted by clinicians at the IMM was the recognition of the status of physician-researcher by the Ministries of Health and Science, and the creation of doctoral programmes specifically tailored to physicians, particularly the programme sponsored by the Gulbenkian Foundation.
3. The Research Units of the IMM have been restructured recently. What is the plan?
This restructuring reflects the changes in “personality” that the IMM has gone through in its first 10 years of life. Today the Institute is very different from what it was when it was first created in 2002. The organization of the research units was obsolete! One of the most conspicuous examples was the failure, on our part, to integrate new research areas, particularly clinically-related ones. Initially, the research groups focused on neuroscience, immunology, nutrition, biochemistry, and molecular biology. But then new researchers with new ideas and interests joined the IMM. Today we pay a lot of attention to multidisciplinarity, to communication between researchers who have different skills and points of view. Therefore, we have adopted a much more flexible structure. We do not wish to compartmentalize research into areas. We do not have priority areas; rather, we have research projects that evolve year after year with the people who work here. Our commitment to research aims to solve problems that are medically relevant and any project, as long as it has high scientific quality, is very welcome.
4. The Institute of Molecular Medicine is very competitive nationally and internationally. How do you explain the success of the Institute?
People! This is because that, in order to obtain funding in science, we need to submit our ideas to strict scrutiny. Each project is benchmarked against other projects presented by other scientists. Only the best are approved. The success of the IMM showcases the success of its researchers in the constant struggle to obtain funding.
5. How is research perceived in Portugal? In particular, research done in the country?
Fortunately the Portuguese society believes in the value of national research. To a large extent this feeling is the result of background work developed over several years by successive science policy makers, in particular by Mariano Gago. Portuguese society recognizes the importance of research and it should be noted that science is one of the most important features for the overall development of a country.
It is very important to actively counteract those who claim that research is expensive and that Portugal should save a few Euros and leave research to the richest countries. This idea is wrong because those who make the findings are the ones who explore and develop them. To think that we should be subordinate to findings from other countries would be to sentence Portugal to be underdeveloped. It is paramount to continue to support communication initiatives about the value of science for the development of our country. And of course, this attitude must be mirrored in the support given by the Portuguese state to science funding.
6. What expectations for the future? For the next 10 years?
To continue to grow and become even better. We have a limitation imposed by space, for which reason we cannot continue to grow indefinitely. For the time being we are still in the growth phase, but we are aware that we must always have a policy of renewal based on research strands and projects that will be gradually discontinued to make way for new ones.
Our focus for the coming years is to further diversify the areas in which the IMM conducts research. Thus, we plan to increase our ability to attract funds, making us more independent from Portuguese state funding.
It should be noted that the current crisis does not scare Portuguese scientists, particularly young people who studied and trained abroad. Scientists are very rational and pragmatic people: they are aware that the crisis experienced in Portugal is proportional to the crisis felt in other countries. So, why not return to Portugal and contribute to its development? This is the thinking frame we have noticed. The IMM is recognized by Portuguese researchers living abroad as an opportunity to further develop their work in Portugal. We are constantly receiving visits from Portuguese researchers who wish to come back and ask us if they can come to the IMM, knowing that our selection process is extremely rigorous.
For all these reasons, we are very optimistic about the future. We believe that the IMM will develop further and produce better research in all areas relevant to medicine.