The Gulbenkian Collaborative Centre forms part of the Gulbenkian Institute of Science (IGC), and has the mission of establishing the organisation and the region of Oeiras as an internationally respected centre of science and innovation. Luís Valente, executive director of the centre, explains what is being done with a view to fulfilling this mission, and the ambitions for the coming years.
Oeiras City Council and the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation have joined together to provide financial support to top researchers in the most diverse scientific areas that perform or may in future perform research in the Municipality. Support will be provided through the “Oeiras – ERC Frontier Research Incentive Awards”, with the IGC Gulbenkian Collaborative Centre coordinating this award. These awards have been created in the same year as the European Research Council (ERC) consolidation grants competition, which chose 11 Portuguese researchers, six in Portugal, and four of which are from institutions based in Oeiras. Specifically, three researchers from the IGC and one from the Portuguese Institute of the Sea and the Atmosphere (IPMA).
In an interview with Oeiras Valley, Luís Valente, the executive director of the centre, speaks of the importance of awarding this prize, of the remaining projects in which the Collaborative Centre is involved and also of the main goals he wishes to achieve. Transforming Portugal and Oeiras into a platform that hosts important scientific and advanced training events is one of the main ones.
The Gulbenkian Collaborative Centre was conceived not long ago. For what purpose was it created and what role would you like it to play?
The Collaborative Centre was conceived of the need to make science more collaborative, more interdisciplinary and more accessible. We know that the most important scientific challenges that lie ahead, whether climate change, biodiversity loss, emerging diseases or antibiotic resistance, demand robust responses from us that will not be found by scientists working alone.
In other words, complex problems demand answers that require the participation and collaboration of experts in many fields, from Biology to Physics and Social Sciences and with the participation of scientists, companies and other members of society. On the other hand, there are very big differences in access to scientific knowledge that lead to a lack of geographic representativeness, or even a lack of certain national communities in the production of scientific knowledge, and we intend to contribute towards reducing these asymmetries.
What path do you intend to follow or explore in order to fulfil the established objectives?
The Collaborative Centre has created programmes that aim to fulfil precisely these objectives, such as the sabbatical programme, through which we have already received at the Gulbenkian Institute of Science some of the most renowned scientists in the world, who spend seasons working with researchers in Portugal, or continuing the António Coutinho Grants Programme, which aims to increase diversity in the scientific community and train citizens or descendants from Portuguese-speaking African Countries to perform scientific research.
We have also organised or planned some international courses and conferences, at the current time predominantly in virtual format due to the pandemic, but we intend to do them in person in the future in order to transform Portugal and Oeiras into a platform that hosts important scientific and advanced training events that place scientists from different fields in the same network. On the other hand, we have plans to establish spaces for collaboration and co-creation among scientists and companies, promoted by the InnOvalley innovation unit, as well as spaces where local institutions can develop collaborative initiatives among scientists and other members of society.
The “Oeiras – ERC Frontier Research Incentive Awards” recently agreed between Oeiras City Council and the Gulbenkian Foundation directly involves the Gulbenkian Collaborative Centre. What is your role?
The Collaborative Centre has a coordinating role, while Oeiras City Council funds the initiative. In fact, I think it is important to stress just how extraordinary the initiative of the Council is in supporting the scientific institutions that are established in its territory, and in particular the support it has given to the Collaborative Centre. In this case, Oeiras City Council understood the importance of supporting top scientists who have submitted excellent applications to the European Research Council, but who have been left without funding simply due to the provider’s lack of means.
Under the cooperation agreement now established, the Centre is responsible for coordinating the initiative, as well as for operating a monitoring committee made up of members of different institutions in Oeiras, which ensures the transparency of the programme and confirms that the funds are spent to best effect in scientific activities.
What importance do you attach to the creation of these awards?
These awards end up achieving multiple objectives. On the one hand, they send a strong signal to all researchers in Oeiras that there is interest and concrete action being taken to help keep some of the best scientists in the region, as well as providing them with the conditions to improve their projects so that they become even more competitive internationally.
On the other hand, it will help attract more talent to the institutions by creating alternative sources of funding. The awards will also create additional motivation for researchers to apply to the European Research Council, and we believe that this will also increase the number of applications funded.
Finally, these awards will serve as an example, so that other municipalities, philanthropists or entities at national level may adopt this idea, or similar ideas, enabling more scientists to receive support and enabling us to improve the competitiveness of the national scientific system.
Looking to the future, what goals would the Gulbenkian Collaborative Centre like to see fulfilled three years from now, for example?
The Collaborative Centre should establish itself as a platform that can attract some of the best scientists in the world to develop collaborative and interdisciplinary research, as well as participate in the advanced training of younger researchers. We estimate that, in three to five years, the centre’s activities will lead to a considerable increase in the number of applications from scientists wishing to come here to establish their laboratories or attend top courses and conferences, which we will be organising on a regular basis.
We also hope to be able to attract around 10 top researchers to spend their sabbaticals here each year, establishing collaborations with local scientists, participating in the training of PhD students and participating in activities to promote science. Additionally, by that time we should have contributed to the scientific training of dozens of researchers from Portuguese-speaking African Countries, or their descendants, incorporating them into a network with domestic researchers.
We also aim, in that same period of time, to help provide the necessary conditions for the establishment of partnerships between scientists and companies that can lead to the development of new products. This is a long-term project that we want to build on continuously: in addition to these ideas and initiatives, we want to continue listening to the scientific community, companies and interested citizens so that, together, we can think up new ways and programmes that help us attract good scientists, promote collaboration between experts in different fields and devise new ways to democratise access to scientific knowledge.