With nearly 60 years of existence, the Gulbenkian Institute of Science (IGC) is one of the largest national references in the field of science and research. Located in Oeiras, the IGC welcomes researchers of 41 different nationalities. Oeiras Valley got to know it from the inside.
12 July 2019. Thousands of people headed for the Algés seafront to watch the performance of Vampire Weekend, one of the most awaited bands of that edition of the NOS Alive festival. But while the American group was not performing, visitors strolled through the numerous stands of the precinct. One of them – the stand of the Gulbenkian Institute of Science – attracted a particularly large amount of visitors. With one difference: inside, there were no drinks offered, but instead knowledge. At this stand, visitors could participate in speed-dating activities with scientists, asking questions on scientific topics; participate in games about antibiotic resistance, or even turn their mobile phone into a microscope. The purpose of this initiative? To bring science and knowledge to the general public and show that everywhere is good for practising science.
This presence of the Gulbenkian Institute of Science (IGC) at Nos Alive is the result of a partnership between the institute and Everything is New, promoter of NOS Alive since the first festival in 2007, and is a reflection of the mission of this institute that next year will celebrate its 60th anniversary.
Installed in the heart of Oeiras, next to the Palácio do Marquês, the IGC hosts around 400 people, including researchers and students, of 41 different nationalities. Science is done here every day. And, very often, relevant discoveries are made in the area of life sciences that could impact the future of health. In 2018 alone, IGC researchers published more than 130 articles in international scientific publications.
“We have already trained more than 600 PhD students. We have a PhD programme that is very innovative, is recognised nationally and internationally and is already 26 years old. Many people have left here for the whole country and for the whole world”, explains Mónica Bettencourt Dias, scientist, Director of the IGC and Co-President of EU-Life.
“Our mission is for people to grow up here and then go to other places to develop the science they did and learned here”, she adds. For this reason, it is not surprising that many of the current leaders of other institutes linked to science, such as the Instituto de Medicina Molecular or the Centro de Doenças Crónicas, also passed through the IGC.
But what kind of science is done here? Mónica Bettencourt Dias explains with examples. “We believe that knowledge often comes out of what is not expected and from the perception of people with different ideas. We have people here who are trying to understand how our cells behave. But we also have other people studying how lemurs in Madagascar manage to survive in that environment”.
Despite having some difficulty in highlighting the most emblematic projects developed by the IGC, Mónica Bettencourt Dias highlights some of the most recent discoveries made in Oeiras. “We have researchers studying how bacteria, when subjected to antibiotics, can gain resistance and how we can attack the weaknesses of these bacteria. There is also a researcher who found that when a fly is infected with a bacterium it is more resistant to the virus. And with that discovery, there are people in the world today who are releasing mosquitoes infected with bacteria because this way they do not transmit dengue. This is an example of how to go from such pure and fundamental research to something very applicable”, assures the IGC researcher and director.
The examples continue: a researcher at the institute, studying the relationship between the nervous system, the adipose system and the immune system, has probably discovered a new way to regulate obesity.
The freedom and independence to practice science and the dialogue between the various research groups are some of the factors that contribute to the success of the Gulbenkian Institute of Science and help to explain the fact that it is well classified in the evaluations that are carried out. The results of the latest evaluations carried out by the Fundação para a Ciência e Tecnologia prove the excellence of the science produced in Oeiras: in 2014 the IGC was among the 11 institutions that were awarded the classification of excellent and in 2019 it maintained the same classification. This result allows not only to highlight R&D institutions, but also to define the allocation of funding.
The IGC is a completely horizontal organisation, with few hierarchies and without divisions. “We love to promote dialogue between people from many different areas. Hence the fact that we have no units or departments. We have about 30 research groups that speak to each other. Then we have several infrastructures – from microscopes to machines that read our genome – to support the work of these groups”, explains the Director of the IGC.
It is from this dialogue between the various groups that relevant findings emerge: “We know that microbes in the intestine have a very important role. There are even those who say they can determine our longevity and our behaviour. We have a researcher who works with the immune system, another who works with microbes and another who works in the area of evolution. And, when the three spoke together, they began to understand how these microbes evolve inside our intestines, how the immune system affects this process and then they arrived at resistance to antibiotics”, explains the Director of the IGC.
Bringing Science and Knowledge to everyone
Making knowledge and science accessible to everyone is, for the Director of the IGC, a fundamental step. “Science and technology are everywhere today. For example, when we decide whether or not to vaccinate our children or whether or not to eat certain foods that are genetically modified. All of these decisions have to do with science and technology. It is very important to inform citizens and it is essential that citizens can participate in science. And in this field, the Oeiras City Council has been financing very interesting projects in the area of science education and citizen science”.
But this is just one of the fronts that those who do science every day in Portugal feel that they must be worked on. We need to go further, by facilitating instruments to practice science and also to attract talent. Greater collaboration is still needed between entities that practice science and the business world.
In this sense, the IGC is developing the international collaborative centre in partnership with the Oeiras City Council. The objective is to bring more researchers to Portugal, through a programme of sabbatical leave, conferences, collaborative projects and courses and, thus, to give more visibility to the science that is done in Oeiras, but also in Portugal. With this objective in mind, the IGC, in partnership with the Oeiras City Council and Merck, launched the António Coutinho Scholarships, an initiative aimed at students, teachers and young researchers from Portuguese-Speaking African Countries that aims to promote cooperation, training and development scientific research. The first Scholarships were delivered in 2019 and in 2020 three more will be awarded.
Despite the work that still needs to be done to project the science that is being done in the country, Mónica Bettencourt Dias has no doubts about the excellence of science in Portugal. “Since the time I left Portugal, in 1997, to study abroad, there has been a major change in science in Portugal. Now we have much more critical mass in several areas and it is possible to do excellent research in Portugal”, concludes.