|Assessment Report / Institute of Biotechnology|
University of Helsinki
Research Assessment Exercise 1999
Panel 4 BIOLOGICAL SCIENCES
Biological Sciences now constitute a very large area ranging from studies of molecules on the one hand to global systems on the other. The University of Helsinki’s investment in biological sciences covers most of this range. It is located in three faculties, Science, Agriculture and Forestry, and Pre-Clinical Medicine. The latter has been assessed by a separate panel as also have most biology-based departments in the Faculty of Agriculture. The exception was the Dept. of Limnology & Environmental Protection, which Panel 4 considered along with the Botanical & Zoological Departments of the Finnish Museum of Natural History, the Dept. of Biosciences, the Institute of Biotechnology, the Dept. of Ecology & Systematics, the Dept. of Ecological & Environmental Sciences (at Lahti) & the three Biological Stations of the Faculty of Science. Profs. Erseus, Giller, Hideg, Makela & Moss(who acted as chairperson) were available in the week of Sept. 6-10 and visited parts of all the listed units. Prof. Makela (who acted then as Chairperson), Kurland & Heldin were available on Sept. 13 & 14 when they visited the remaining parts of the Dept. of Biosciences & Institute of Biotechnology and the Institute of Medical Technology, University of Tampere.
The panel closely followed the guidelines of the University in rating the Departments and Institute on the basis of the selected publications given for each active researcher. It used the terms "high, good & fair international" terminology, established by the University & defined 'high' as meaning papers published in what the panel considered the leading 25% of journals in the appropriate sub-discipline. It considered ‘good’ status to include the middle 50% of journals and ‘fair’ to be the remaining 25% of international journals. Publications of national significance were taken to be those generally unavailable, through language or obscure publication status to international audiences. Where publications were listed on a divisional basis within a department, the panel rated the division separately & then calculated the departmental mean, weighted according to the number of research-active staff presented in each division.
There was some concern about the applicability of these categories to the museum departments and the systematics division of the Dept of Ecology and Systematics. The opportunities for publication in some areas of systematics-based research are limited by the paucity of high impact journals because systematics is largely served by a plethora of highly specific journals, each with a very specialised audience, although the results of this research, ultimately reflected in the accurate taxonomy necessary for all other biological research, are of cosmopolitan importance. On the University’s scheme, to which we have abided, most systematics journals would rate inevitably only as ‘fair’ and this perhaps underestimates the significance of much of this work.
The panel paid little attention to research income, for some areas are inherently more expensive than others but it did note major research grants & contracts from competitive sources. Nor did it pay very much attention to the lengths of the total publications lists, for these were highly miscellaneous and could have included much repetition, in conference or semi-popular form, of work also published in research journals. The panel did, however, compare the nature of the selected & total lists to determine the extent to which the selected list was typical of the total output.
Journal impact factors were barely considered as their absolute value is determined more by the size of the constituency & the number of papers published annually in a journal than by absolute quality. The panel, however, was aware of the status of journals among sub-disciplines, which it considered was reflected in the relative values of the impact factors among that group.
Visits to the Departments & Institutes were very helpful, not so much in determining the ratings, but in establishing the background that might have contributed to the rating given. In all cases the departments were asked for their comments on the system the University had established and in all cases they felt the scheme acceptable. In almost all cases (the exceptions being the museum departments), the graduate students were met in the absence of the staff and their views solicited on the research environment. These often proved illuminating. We are very grateful for all the help we were given, the hospitality received from the Departments and Institutes and the Rector and the admirable logistic arrangements made by Dr Antti Arjava & Mr Esa Hamalainen and not least the stimulating intellectual discussions on the role of women in ancient Rome we had with Dr Arjava whilst in transit between Helsinki, Lahti & Lammi.
We would urge that this report be read through in its entirety, and not just selectively for individual departments. for there are general issues of organisation, particularly of biological environmental sciences and of systematics in the University that we allude to in a number of places and draw together at the end in our discussion of the Biological Stations.
The Institute of Biotechnology
The Institute is a somewhat different organisation compared with other Departments we considered in that its sole purpose is research (and research training). It does not have any undergraduate teaching responsibilities nor the curatorial or other functions of the museum departments. It receives preferential funding and thus expectations of its research performance must be greater than of other organisations we considered.
The Institute is made up of in-house groups as well as groups that are also administratively associated with Divisions within the Department of Biosciences. These patterns of affiliation are complex. The current programmes are as follows: 1. Molecular Neurobiology. 2. Developmental Biology, 3. Plant Molecular Biology. 4. Structural Biology and Biophysics, which is in a phase of marked expansion and reorganisation. 5. Cellular Biotechnology, which has just been formed from parts of previous programmes of Molecular Genetics of Microbes and Glycobiology and Molecular Medicine. 6. Core Facilities, which are in a marked state of transition. Some of the relevant core functions will be incorporated into the newly constituted Structural Biology and Biophysics group. Other facilities such as those for transgenic mice and microarray analysis are scheduled to expand in a major way in the immediate future.
Assessment of Strengths and Weaknesses
The Institute clearly has developed a capacity to plan and to make priorities for future activities, for investment in costly facilities as well as for recruiting new group leaders and for disassociating veteran group leaders. This capacity continuously to reformulate policy is an outstanding characteristic of this institute, engendered by a guidance body of international membership. The planning functions and acceptance of the impermanence of the staff depend on a shared sense that all the staff have a common cause, and that all are dedicated to the pursuit of the highest quality science.
Indeed, it is clear that this sense of common cause and the excitement of participating in front-line research is experienced also by the graduate students at the Institute. The fine research atmosphere and future orientation of the members of the Institute is a tribute to the strong, knowledgeable and dedicated leadership provided by the current Director.
Another strength of the Institute is its openness, expressed both locally and internationally. Thus, the core facilities have provided in many cases nationally unique opportunities for research with costly front-line techniques to scientists outside the institute. At the same time international collaborations as well as foreign staff have greatly enriched the research efforts of the Institute. An important function of the Institute has been to provide a supportive research environment for young scientists at a critical stage of their careers. Similarly, the staff of the Institute have pursued very strong graduate student training programmes both as research advisers and as teachers in advanced courses. In brief, the Institute has done well in the demanding task of competing in the open market for most of its research funds whilst adequately nurturing its human resources.
On the other hand, the intense activities of the Institute have created a space problem. Space constraints are particularly evident in the case of animal facilities for the construction and use of transgenic mice. Many students complained of constrained space in which to carry out their work. We also noted a marked discrepancy between the proportion of women graduate students in the Institute and the scarcity of women group leaders and this had been noted also by the graduate students. We appreciate the historic reasons for what is a very common discrepancy in research institutes and Universities, but it is clearly a situation that cannot anywhere be allowed to continue indefinitely.
Justification for Rating
The overwhelming majority of publications from this unit appeared in high class international journals and a significant number of these were published in the most prominent journals. In addition to the high quality of the publications, their numbers and diversity of subject were also impressive. Patents and spin-off applications from the basic research provide another dimension to the excellence of this Institute. At the same time, when the advantages that the Institute has been given are considered, any grading lower than 7 would have constituted a significant failure.
We recommend that the Institute focuses its research programme profile more clearly as the size of the individual programmes increases. There is a possible danger of imbalance in the near future. The continued development of new strategic core facilities, though very resource-demanding, is an essential function of this Institute. We encourage the Institute to continue an aggressive renewal policy for its core facilities. At the same time we stress the importance of maintaining an open, co-operative attitude that encourages the use of these facilities by students and investigators from outside the Institute. One way to encourage this co-operation is vigorously to participate in the development of the Biocenter concept at Vikki.
Likewise, we recommend that the staff of the Institute participate more actively, though not to a debilitating degree, in the undergraduate education programmes of the Viikki campus. We expect such participation to promote two positive effect: It will provide further encouragement of research co-operation with other biologists in the Vikki community. It will intellectually benefit both the staff of the institute, and possibly the students at Viikki.