On the cancer-research institute Oncode and the importance of equality in the sciences

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This year saw the founding of Oncode, a virtual cancer-research institute where acclaimed scientists pool their knowledge in order to improve the field of oncology. Their budget? 120 million. The goal? Curing cancer worldwide. A beautiful mission, but the responses from the weren’t without criticism.

TEXT: Pauline Bijster
PHOTO JOOST GRIBNAU: © Antim Photography

The main points of critique were: not enough women scientists were affiliated with the project, and too many men of over 60 who got their position by way of nepotism. On the Oncode website the message is one of diversity, because cancer manifests itself differently in every single person’s body. There’s more awareness these days when it comes to how differences in gender or ethnicity influence the way sickness can manifest in a body. But how are these different forms of diversity connected?

Professor Joost Gribnau is biochemist and in charge of a research group at Erasmus MC, part of the Procreation and Development department. Currently he’s chairing a research group for Oncode. Professor Hanneke Takkenberg is distinguished professor Clinical Operations Research for cardiovascular interventions at Erasmus MC. Takkenberg has been fighting for gender equality throughout her academic career. Over the past three years she’s operated as Chief Diversity Officer for Erasmus University. More recently she’s received the Els Borst Ouevre Prize.

Gribnau and Takkenberg talked about the importance of equality and diversity in academia, among researchers as well as in the research itself.

Joost Gribnau, what is it that you do for Oncode?

JG: ‘My research focusses on differences between men and women. On a molecular level there’s one important difference: one has a y chromosome, the other has an x chromosome. That difference and everything it entails is relevant when researching cancer.

I might be an odd one out at Oncode. They asked me to hand in my CV, and a written piece on my view on cancer. They had a lot of applications, and from those they made a selection. I was part of that selection. At the university we’d just started a research into epigenetics (a field that focusses on how genes turn on and off), looking into cervical cancer and colon cancer. Oncode’s invitation came at just the right moment: because of the multidisciplinary institute I can now expand my network and enter into collaborations.’

What’s the purpose of an institute like Oncode?

JG: ‘In the last years there’s been a lot of budget cuts, especially when it comes to ‘pure’ scientific research (research that’s driven by curiosity and aimed at unpacking the basic mechanisms of molecular cel biology). We’ve felt the consequences. In my lab there’s almost no one who does ‘pure’ research anymore, even though that’s exactly the kind of research we need in order to ever cure cancer. In the Netherlands there’s a lack of long-term investments. It’s a good thing that the KWF is basically saying: this is important, let’s invest in it. The great thing about the institute is that it’s made funding available for basic and long-term cancer research.

Do you agree with the critique the institute has gotten in the media?

JG: ‘I think that from the very beginning it wasn’t very clear on what grounds the selections were made. Were people brought in based on personal achievements, or was it a case of nepotism? The process wasn’t transparent, and so they got all this criticism. I myself believe that a lot of breakthroughs in basic research come from the lab, not from networks. There needs to be enough money left for individual researchers. On the other hand, a network is a powerful thing. Good communication in between researchers and among institutes can ensure a fast transition from research to implementation – and can also ensure that things aren’t repeated unnecessarily, that knowledge doesn’t go wasted.’

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And Hanneke Takkenberg, as Chief Diversity, how do you feel about this sort of gender division – five men on the supervisory board but no women?

HT: ‘As Chief Diversity Officer, but also as a member of the women’s network, my goal has always been: creating an inclusive academic community where people can be themselves, have the same opportunities. It’s important that people can teach or do research, and achieve those milestones that on their own. We also know that when you have a diversification of perspectives within a team you get better results, more innovation, etc. Moreover, it’s important to take differences into account when you’re doing research. That way you can help all people, disregarding gender or background, and give them the best healthcare there is.’


Do you recognise yourself in that, Joost Gribnau?

JG: ‘In my field, most research was done on men, almost exclusively. Male and female embryonal stem cells behave differently, for example, and for some reason the researchers have always chosen to do research on male cells. So we still have a long way to go.’

HT: ‘Another example from the work field: we operate on patients with a widened aorta – on both men and women. We don’t change the way we operate when it’s either a man or a womwn, even though their bodies are different, if only just in size. Another example: people from India sometimes have different forms of heightened cholesterol levels. Those are the kinds of elements you want to take into consideration when doing research. It’s starting to dawn now.’

JG: ‘Up until recently those weren’t things we thought about. But now there’s a change happening, we’re realising that we need to be more aware.’ Hanneke Takkenberg: ‘Though I do see quite a bit of resistance amongst some hospital specialists. “Here they go again with the whole women spiel.” They don’t realise that if we keep on treating men and women as exactly the same bodies, we’ll miss out on a lot of good prognoses. The resistance keeps on surprising me. It’s not just a “women’s thing”, it’s about all patients getting better treatment.’

How did you feel about the criticism Oncode got, Hanneke Takkenberg?

HT: ‘I’m also chair of Athena’s Angels, a country-wide women’s network, and we also co-wrote a critical article in reaction. Since it all came out there have been stimulation-funds set up for young women scientists. needs to be done differently.’

JG: ‘The gender division at Oncode – 7 women and 43 men, I believe – is not exactly equal. The fact that it’s a majority ‘older’ men could have something to do with the fact that it took fifteen years to set up the institute. They were younger when they started. The institute did, however, listen to the criticism: the supervisory board was initially made up of five older men, and n the meanwhile it’s been replaced by a board with two women at the table. And an open call has just gone out, looking for fourteen new women scientists. I think that they got off to a bad start, which is awkward. More transparency about the selection process would’ve been better.’

HT: ‘If you put out an open call for only women scientist, sometimes you get the comment that it’s not fair to the men. But I think if we want to achieve equality, we have to take that in stride. The Netherlands is far behind when it comes to gender equality. Not just in science but also in terms of the workforce at large. Americans are considerably ahead of us in terms of gender equality on the work floor.’

JG: ‘For years I was part of a selection committee for individual grants, and making a selection was never an issue because the division was always 50-50. So I do think it’s possible, and that this generation will make sure that equality will be achieved. When it comes to achievements, women come out on top more and more often. So I’m optimistic about the future.’

HT: ‘I don’t think women will run the risk of overrepresentation. As long as the old guard remains in charge, this will be a challenge.’

  • Name: Joost Gribnau
    Study: Biochemistry at Leiden University. PhD at the Celbiology and Genetics department at Erasmus University.
    Career: Named Distinguished Professor in Epigenetics at Erasmus MC in 2015.

    Name: Hanneke Takkenberg
    Study: Medicine at Groningen University.
    Career: Distinguished Professor Clinical Operations Research for cardiovascular interventions. Next to that, Takkenberg is also Chief Diversity Officer at Eramus University, and she chairs the National Network for Women Professors.

  • ‘It’s about all patients getting better treatment.’

    Hanneke Takkenberg