Monday, 7 April 2014

Hungary for Biochemistry? [Part 1]

How do we begin to analyse the characteristics of Science in any country, and in this case Hungary? I should make it clear that I am speaking from my own perspective and experience. However, I believe it is important to appreciate the International nature of Science and scientists, including historical and political perspectives. For the purposes of this Blog I will not consider contributions made before 1900 (although I shall return to this important point later in the future). One convenient measure of achievement or impact of a country, is to look at the number of Nobel Prizes awarded on the basis of nationality. This is convenient because this award is recognised as a universal indicator, although there is the caveat that the Nobel Prize has certain restrictive criteria that impose some limitations on the validity of this as a sole source. Another measure might be the total number of peer reviewed publications and patents that appear in the scientific literature each year. And finally, how much money does a country spend annually on Science (which must be considered when comparing value for money of a particular country). It is also important to acknowledge cultural, political and economic factors that can all influence the productivity of a given nation. It would of course be unrealistic (and arrogant) for me to provide an authoritative account of Hungarian Science without devoting appropriate time on investigating such sources. However, I think it is possible to obtain a good level of insight by speaking with individuals who have lived and worked in that country and by extracting data from reliable sources such as NCBI, the Economist etc. and the above graphic is taken form an edition of Nature devoted to metrics. This is therefore a taster of Science in Hungary and it is hoped it will stimulate a few of you to find out more!

Hungary is a land-locked Central European country that shares borders with the historically important nations of Austria, Serbia Croatia, Romania, Ukraine, Slovakia and Slovenia. It has a population of around 10 million (the UK is 63m) and covers an area that is about half of the United Kingdom: it is a member of the European Union. Politically, Hungary was subsumed by the Soviet Union until the collapse of soviet communism at the end of the 1980s. Currently, Hungary is ruled by the conservative Fidesz party and it has been a member of the European Union for around 10 years. The capital city is Budapest and we will be looking at an academic group for Szeged, which lies south of Budapest and is famous for its paprika, which is a key ingredient in Hungarian goulash! Szeged is Hungary's third largest city, but Szeged is also home to the most prestigious University in Hungary.

Hungary has had no fewer than 9 Nobel Laureates, which represents around 9 per 10m population: compare this with 10 per 10m in the USA (the world's most successful nation in terms of total number of Nobel Prizes) and 19 per 10m for the UK. Hungary has a strong tradition of mathematics; you may have heard of Rubik's cube, but also the elaboration of the foundations of non-Euclidian geometry. Personally, when I think of Hungarian Science, I always think of Albert Szent-Gyorgyi (shown right), famous for his work on vitamin C and metabolism in general, who was awarded the sole recipient of the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1937. So far this has been an historical view of Hungarian Science and we shall hear from Dr. Antal Kiss in part two of this Blog. 

Biotechnology forms an important element in the future economic development of Hungary, which is itself built on strong teaching and research traditions in areas like Mathematics and Biochemistry. The work in Antal Kiss's laboratory (that's Antal, left) has been of interest to me for some time, since his group's early involvement in the Biochemistry of DNA restriction and modification enzymes. Publications from Antal's group are characterised by their attention to detail, impressive creativity and the care taken over the experimental data. I have enormous respect for the work from Antal's group, but I also have fond memories of the hospitality and kindness shown to me and my colleagues when we visited his institute as part of a European Research collaboration network. It is these experiences and the intellect, commitment and humanity of Antal and his colleagues that makes science so rewarding. In the next Blog, Antal will tell his own story, I hope this whets your appetite.

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