In conversation with Peter Piot, one of the new members of VIB’s Institutional Advisory Board

24 July 2019
From the start, VIB has aimed high in its ambitions: perform excellent research, realize impact for society and create a good and striving work environment for its scientists. This has always been and will remain a challenge in which VIB can count on the support of its Institutional Advisory Board (IAB). The IAB consists of prominent international scientists and managers who regularly formulate recommendations to VIB on its institutional policy and the board will be joined by three new IAB members. Peter Piot starts as of 2019, Aviv Regev and Daria Mochly-Rosen will join the IAB in 2020. We had the pleasure to speak with Peter Piot during his first on site visit as brand new IAB member.

It is an honor to welcome you to our institutional advisory board (IAB). What was your first idea when you were invited to join the IAB? What made you decide to join?
“I have a lot of respect for VIB because I’m convinced that VIB has been a game changer in science 
in Flanders, certainly in my field of life sciences and biotechnology. It has introduced a non-politicized
excellence-driven type of research and ensured that we can support the best researchers which will begood against brain drain.” 

“I also think VIB is taking large steps towards translation and that is where my current interests lie, and I know a few of the groups, particularly those working in infectious diseases. Reasons enough, the only reason I hesitated is I’m overcommitted. But this​ doubt has passed, and I hope to learn as much as I can contribute.”

How important/valuable do youconsider such an Advisory Board for an institute as VIB?
“Any organization now and then needs an outside look from ‘critical friends’, people who are willing to say what they think, but do so in the spirit of encouraging improvement. When you’re in the daily rat race,
you sometimes lose perspective on the longer-term view. Sometimes you lose perspective of what’s going
very well, but also on what needs to be fixed.”

“Where VIB is quite international in terms of its researchers, one of the limiting factors is the fact that the
institute – and its top management – is Flemish. That could slow down further development, so having an institutional advisory board is, as for any other organization, very important.”

“I see my role a bit as a bridge between the international members and the local community, since after all I’m still a Belgian. This institute is world-class, but the world doesn’t always knowit, and even with in Flanders people don’t always know. I hope I can contribute by spreading the message that this is one of the best life sciences and biotechnology institutions in the whole world.”

You were active abroad as Executive Director of UNAIDS and Under Secretary-General of the United Nations when VIB was initiated (1995). Did you have any expectations at that time of what this new institute could mean for research, for Flanders, and for society?
“I was still part-time in Antwerp when VIB was founded and what I liked immediately was that it was breaking down the silos and the barriers between various universities and disciplines, and that it had as sole criterion scientific excellence. And of course, the societal usefulness. I also remember that there was a lot of skepticism, which now proves to be unjust.“

Translating research results into applications has always been the aim of VIB. Now, with VIB Discovery Sciences and the Grand Challenges program, we are taking two additional steps to increase the societal impact of VIB. What is your view on these initiatives?
“As much as I am a big believer in blue skies science, discovery for the sake of improving knowledge, we
must also become better at filling the gap between the academic type of science and results that can improve people’s life, whether it’s in plant science – better foods, or improved medicine, vaccines… VIB has already made great contributions. With those new initiatives VIB is moving to version 2.0 or 3.0. I think that is a logical
next step because society will want to see improvements not only in knowledge, but also in applications.”

Basic researchers sometimes feel reluctance towards translation. You must have experienced this as well. How do you deal with this?
“Well, I think we need the whole spectrum. One should not force a basic researcher to focus on translation immediately. In any case, you never know what some esoteric type of discovery could lead to. But the reverse is also true. People who would like to do translational research, connect more with entrepreneurship and innovation… We need both and I don’t see a conflict. It’s very important that there is dialogue. The fact that both aspects can coexist under the same roof, as is the case for VIB, is very important and a major strength.”
 
In your career you must have experienced the importance of external factors (politics, economic issues, crises…) in the process of translating promising research results into new applications. How do we, as researchers or research institution, best deal with this?
“In Europe there are a lot of restrictions. Here, we probably need to do a better job as scientists and have a real dialogue: involve people, provide information without being arrogant and pretending that we know it all. This engagement with the public, politicians and other stakeholders should be part of every scientist’s job. But scientists often speak in terms and acronyms that even scientists from another discipline don’t understand, and they are usually not good in politics. That is where VIB as organization can really take position and support its researchers.”

“At the same time, now that VIB is growing and becoming more important in the world, the institute should have explicit policies on conflict of interest, on gender…. Action points nobody is against, but which need to be worked on to make them happen. Also, when your science leads to an interesting application, you need to think about how the largest number of people can benefit from this. There’s of course a limit to what VIB can do, but it’s important that we collectively think about this. This is also a role for the IAB in my opinion.”

The largest number of people, that includes of course people in developing countries. How can we make sure that they also get access to breakthroughs from VIB researchers?
“This is always a priority in my mind, but don’t forget people in high-income countries like the US where a lot of people don’t have health insurance. A good way to deal with this is via access policies. Many universities, many research institutions or foundations like the Gates foundation or the Wellcome Trust, use this. In negotiations with an industrial partner there is a clause included ensuring access to a wider range of people, not always easy. For me, it’s important that we can discuss this, preferably before a crisis. I am not naïve. It costs hundreds of millions of euros to develop a new vaccine or medicine and bring it to market. But we also
have to think about how we can find the best of all worlds to benefit people. All these are new and good challenges ahead for VIB.”

You were one of the speakers in our recent conference ‘The 1918 Influenza pandemic: historical and biomedical reflections’. How important and enriching are such initiatives that bring together different
disciplines on one mutual topic of interest?
“I am a strong believer. Today’s problems are so complex that it’s very rare that one discipline can find a solution. Health issues for instance. In a sense it can be easy if there is a vaccine. But you also need to make sure that people accept the vaccine. Heidi [his wife Heidi Larson, director of the Vaccine Confidence Project, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine] works on the fact that a lot of parents refuse to have their kids vaccinated. But if you think of other problems like dementia, where there is no single treatment, or obesity, diabetes, also major health issues. It is not only about availability of cures, but also about aspects such as the business side and behavioral change.”

“I prefer to go to conferences with people who are a bit different than I am, because that’s when I learn something.”

What lessons have you learned in your rich career (researcher Ebola and AIDS, UNAIDS director, Director
London School of Hygiene and Epidemiology, writing books) that you want to share with the VIB community?
“Believe in a dream. Go for it. Be ambitious. Don’t give up. We only hear about success stories, but behind every success there are many, many failures. When your first grant proposal is rejected, or your first paper, or your fiftieth. Do not give up. And work with others. One of the things I feel strongly about is that one should read widely, beyond one’s specialty. It’s important to look around beyond the topic you’re working on. And of
course, have fun!”

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Peter Piot_©Heidi Larson​
Peter Piot is the Director of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and Professor
of Global Health. He was the founding Executive Director of UNAIDS and Under Secretary- General of the United Nations from 1995 until 2008 and was an Associate Director of the Global Program on AIDS of the WHO. He
has a medical degree from the University of  hent (1974), and a PhD in Microbiology from the University of Antwerp (1980). He has received numerous scientific and civic awards including an honorary doctorate from seven universities. He was ennobled as a baron in Belgium in 1995 and received an honorary knighthood KCMG in the UK in 2017.