The Flanders coalition agreement of 2014-2019 states that Flanders should be one of the top five European regions by 2020. This target acts as a compass for the policy of Philippe Muyters, Flemish Minister for Work, Economy, Innovation and Sports.
Minister Muyters, how did you get to know VIB?
“I first came into contact with VIB during my days at the Social and Economic Council of Flanders (SERV) and later as Managing Director of VOKA, the Flemish Chamber of Commerce. Of course, I got to know the institute a lot better when I joined the Flemish government in 2009. What remained constant during all those years is the image of a very dynamic and internationally- competitive organization.”
When VIB was founded in 1995, the translation of academic knowledge into tangible benefits for society was lagging behind in Flanders. How far have we come since then?
“I think Flanders should be proud of what its research institutions have achieved in recent decades. The concentration of knowledge in a small but central region, where several universities and research institutes are less than a hundred kilometers apart, clearly gives us an enormous advantage. Having such a strong biotech cluster not only puts Flanders on the map for international high-tech companies, it also offers an attractive habitat for top scientists.”
Is Flanders ahead of the pack when it comes to combining basic research with technology transfer?
“There is definitely a lot of interest in the VIB model abroad. Some countries are wondering how they can launch a similar institute, so we’ve definitely hit upon a good formula. However, we can’t forget that other countries are not standing still. We may be at the top now, but it takes continuous effort to stay there. That involves making hard choices about individual research lines while paying close attention to new interdisciplinary fields. We also have to find ways to further reduce the risks of basic research. If we really pave the way and prepare optimally for technology transfer, it is likely to generate more value. As a result, investing in a professional team of tech transfer specialists is essential.”
Do you think Discovery Sciences, VIB’s strategic initiative that aims to increase the success rate of translational research, will play a big part in this de-risking?
“Discovery sciences is a great concept. Given the extremely long development phases for new therapies, talking to interested parties requires perfect preparation and real data that has been gathered through clinical testing or breeding experiments. I’m convinced that Discovery Sciences will contribute to the translation of basic research into potential applications.”
A knowledge economy also needs specialized knowledge workers. What are the challenges in this area?
“For several years now, we have been encouraging students to enroll in studies in the areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). An investment we absolutely need to continue. On the other hand, life sciences is a very international field, which means that our research institutions and companies should also recruit overseas to bring specialized knowledge to Flanders if needed. A second challenge is to further refine the expertise of knowledge workers after they’ve graduated. Again, I see an enormous advantage in the close proximity of our educational centers and research institutions. There is always a high probability that a specific specialization or postgraduate program is offered somewhere in Flanders.
I firmly believe in VIB’s strategic plan for the future which should enable the institute to contribute even more to society. I’m therefore pleased that, together with the entire Flemish Government, I can announce a substantial rise in the annual grant for VIB which will allow them to implement some new initiatives described in their strategy.”