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EBNIC (an EMBO-coordinated action) is funded by the European Commission under the INCO-DC Program (International Co-operation for Developing Countries). The initiative began on 1 February 1998. EBNIC is essentially a "virtual" organization whose aim is to facilitate European scientists and industries who wish to interact with China in the field of biotechnology. Mary Gannon, EMBO manager for the EBNIC project, tells us more about the background and scope of this path-breaking program.

The European Molecular Biology Organisation (EMBO) has a well-established record for the delivery of scientific programmes in the area of life sciences in Europe. It has recently extended the geographical range of its activities to include emerging and developing economies. The overall goal of this programme is to increase the interactions between scientists in Europe and other parts of the world. Not surprisingly, China has been a major focus of interest in this programme, particularly as it is now a partner in the E.U. 5th Framework Programme. In addition, European scientists have the possibility of applying, with their Chinese collaborators, for funding under the 863s (applied research) and 973 (basic research) programmes funded by the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology.

EMBO proposed and coordinates a European Biotechnology Node for Interaction with China (EBNIC), which is being funded by the E.U., as a component of its international cooperation programme. Starting in 1998, EBNIC has organised a number of workshops in China with some complementary workshops of Chinese interest being held in Europe. These workshops have presented an important opportunity to bring together scientists who are contributing actively to topics such as aquaculture, farmed animal biotechnology, biodiversity, plant genome research, cellular microbiology, and AIDS vaccine research and diagnostics.

The style of these workshops is based on those that are held in Europe and organised as part of the EMBO Workshop Programme. High-quality speakers guarantee the core of the programme, but the main excitement comes from the interaction with the younger Chinese scientists, mostly at the postdoctoral level who attend and participate in the discussions. The consequences of these interactions are important for the careers of the young scientists who are present, as they have an opportunity to meet leaders in their field and impress them. This is particularly important given the difficulty of distinguishing among the scientists from China at an early stage in their careers where their publication records cannot be directly compared with those in Europe.

The EBNIC programme of EMBO has also provided plenary lectures for scientific meetings in China, coordinated and extended the visits of European scientists to different locations in China, and has taken responsibility for the EBNIC-CEBC Newsletter, which appears quarterly.

Through these actions and the related intensive series of meetings that have taken place with those who administer to the Chinese scientists, EMBO has developed a useful expertise in the area. In the years to come (after the end of the EBNIC contract), EMBO will continue these activities with greater emphasis on ensuring that the scientific contacts which are made in the workshops give rise to greater collaborations and visits with European scientists. A small fellowship programme will also be established to allow scientists from China to visit Europe and vice versa.

The recognition by EMBO of the importance of China is one small indication that EMBO and presumably scientists everywhere are working in a true international environment in which cooperation and collaboration should prevail for the long-term mutual benefit of scientists in both communities.

The activities within the E.U. contract (EBNIC) focussed on workshops with a particular emphasis on developing joint research projects. By definition, this is appropriate for those with well-established research records in science. EMBO has decided that it will extend its activities by putting much greater emphasis on those scientists at an earlier stage in their careers. Specifically, it will launch in the coming year a pilot programme of fellowships for scientists who wish to come to Europe from developing countries and emerging economies. China is an obvious target for this action and it is hoped that this will move the level of contact to those who are at an early stage in their careers in deciding where to pursue their postdoctoral studies. The possibility of travelling in the opposite direction is one that will deserve consideration in the near future.

In addition, EMBO's long-term fellowship programme is open to scientists at the postdoctoral level to go from Europe to any laboratory in the world (of course, including China) or to allow scientists from outside Europe to spend up to 2 years in a European laboratory. Taken together, this more global approach to research and genuine international philosophy toward the interaction of scientists is one that EMBO promotes and one which will be increasingly relevant to younger scientists in the future.