Croatia's New Scientific Paradise
18 December 2003
The new Mediterranean Institute for Life Sciences in Split hopes to attract the world's best scientists.
by Vedran Horvat
ZAGREB, Croatia--When Croatian scientist Miroslav Radman was handed the keys in mid-November to the new Mediterranean Institute for Life Sciences (MedILS), which he founded, it was an emotional moment.
Looking upon the institute's newly restored facilities in the resort town of Split, on the Adriatic coast, Radman said, "My 30-year-old dream will eventually come true."
The Institute for Life Sciences is structured as a non-profit organization intended to be part of a network of the world's leading biological research institutions. Radman expects the center to attract as many as 90 scientists from around the world, who will be chosen by an international council of their peers.
The 11 November ceremony was indeed an important symbolic moment for Croatian science. By handing over the keys to the new center, Radman said that Croatian Science and Technology Minister Gvozden Flego was opening the door to a risky and ambitious enterprise.
EXCELLENCE AT HOME
But it's adventure, he says, that will certainly attract the best scientists and earn worldwide recognition--and, in the process, will hopefully lead to significant scientific breakthroughs that will benefit humankind.
"This will be the center of the world in the middle of Croatia. There will be no similar institute in the world dedicated to such research crucial to humankind," he says.
The award-winning scientist currently leads a team of 30 scientists at the Necker Institute in Paris, where he is a member of the French Academy of Sciences. Most recently, Radman has been involved in the human genome project and HIV/AIDS research.
Radman has made good use of his reputation to bring together some of the world's top names in the field to create a scientific paradise in the Dalmatian center.
Though he emigrated to France in the 1970s and has built his career up there, he has no qualms about returning to his homeland to head up what he terms his dream project. And there is hope that his good name will motivate other Croatian scientists who have left the country to return.
Radman was born in Split in 1944.
"This is a center of excellence that was established thanks to visionaries who have always succeeded in achieving more. This is the realization of the dream, not just Radman's dream, but also of many of us in Croatia," Flego said, promising further state support for the project.
It is hoped that such "centers of excellence" will help countries in transition to foster investment and attract foreign capital.
"The amount of space for centers of excellence in Croatia depends on the number of excellent people. It is the task of our state to search for and find experts that will work hard on projects for the benefit of the country, the region, and mankind," Flego said.
The science and technology ministry has already invested 1.5 million euros in the restoration of the building housing the new center. An additional 4 million euros is now needed to purchase the necessary equipment--donations Radman is hoping to collect from various institutions around the world.
According to Radman, funding will not be a problem, as many are waiting in line to invest in new biological research. He expects institutions such as the Rockefeller Foundation and the European Union to support the project, as well.
The institute's infrastructure and equipping should be finished during the next year, while it is likely the first experiments will start in summer 2005. But for now, the exact nature of the research is being kept under wraps, while the center awaits further funding for specific projects.
THE MIND, THE ONLY LIMIT
According to Tanja Rudez, a science journalist with the daily Jutarnji list, the creation of the life sciences center was the common dream of Radman and retired Professor Marija Alacevic, as far back as the 1980s. Then, however, the project was buried, having received little support from the state.
In more recent years the state has showed more interest.
Former Science and Technology Minister Hrvoje Kraljevic went as far as to define the creation of the center of excellence as one of the priorities of his term in office. And his successor, Flego, has shown even more enthusiasm for the project.
Croatian President Stjepan Mesic, who has also lent his support to the project over the past few years, has even taken the trouble to personally track down Microsoft boss Bill Gates in the hopes of attracting investment for future research projects.
Rudez, who is also the author of a soon-to-be-published book about Radman's work entitled Miroslav Radman: The Man Who Knocked Down the Genetic Wall, says the new center will lead to significant changes in Croatian science.
Insufficient investment in science, devaluing of the importance of scientific work, and the significant "brain drain" of promising scientists have resulted in decreasing scientific production. The new center, she says, could very well put Croatia back on the scientific map.
The new center "will function according to internationally recognized standards and could eventually lead to the appearance of a new scientific spirit of creativity and competition in the region," Rudez says.
She attributes the new center's potential success to Radman's special charisma.
"He is a fascinating person, a scientific genius, and at the same time, a simple and humane man. Every conversation with him is a unique intellectual adventure," she says.
"Croatia is a small and still very isolated country. People like Radman and his colleagues--[geneticist] Errol Friedberg, [immunologist] Jean Claude Weill, and Nobel Prize-winning biologist Sydney Brenner--spread a spirit of freedom and creativity. I strongly believe that this spirit could infect young people, which is most essential."
Radman says he already has support from numerous Nobel Prize winners.
For the first two years, the institute will be led by renowned American scientist Errol Friedberg, who says its establishment "is a huge step for Croatian history, but also for world science."
Jean Claude Weill, one of the future members of the MedILS research team, likewise applauded the opening of the center, encouraging Croatia to take advantage of this opportunity to be a scientific leader in the world, especially following its turbulent recent history.
The institute will offer undergraduate, postgraduate, and doctoral programs. The official working language will be English.
According to Radman, MedILs will be a center of creativity, independence of thought, and originality able to foster a new type of young scientist: "specialists of multidisciplinary understanding capable of taking essential steps in science."
The task is all the more necessary because scientists today "are choking in a sea of data that they are not able to understand. The only limits they will have will be the limits of their own minds. We will encourage individuality; there will be no intellectual cloning," Radman says.
"We will not use standard methods. We will try something different, something new, we will play, be creative."
Radman also ruled out excessive administration and bureaucracy for the new center. "We need absolute academic freedom, independence, and flexibility. No administration should be an obstacle to the functioning of the institute. In fact, it is better if it is invisible."
Though Croatia is set to swear in a new government before the New Year, the project is expected to earn continued state support.
"I cannot imagine a minister of science who would not stimulate and allow this type of center to flourish," Flego said.
"Croatia's New Scientific Paradise"
Vedran Horvat is a Zagreb-based reporter specializing in social and migration issues.
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