The Birth of the Biological Research Centre, Szeged, Hungary


"Let this research institute serve the purposes of understanding and resolving the fundamental scientific problems of life, of which all humankind and our nation expect that their future will be better and their lives be more full of beauty... Let the results achieved here praise the joint work and success of the researchers, engineers and other workers of this Institute."

/In memory of the foundation stone laying, 2 April 1968/

The birth of the BRC had been preceded by long and careful planning and, sometimes, heated political and scientific project organisation disputes. In the 1960s, everyone agreed that it was time for the plan then cherished for already a decade to be finally implemented: a multi-unit institute focusing on basic research and carrying out ambitious cell and molecular biology experiments should be built in Hungary.

After the ambition, cherished, above all, by academician Brunó Straub F. that biology, which was recognised as a basic field of science, should not only have a group but a separate section within the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, had been approved, the green light was given to establishing a biological research institute, despite strong efforts by some to prevent the same. The first report prepared by the management of the Biological Sciences Section of the HAS („MTA”) in 1963 shows that a major disagreement had formed between decision makers, planners and the management of the Biology Section regarding the location of the institute. Researchers were of the opinion that "installing the institute in Szeged would lead to some slowdown of the development of biology as, in the current status quo, Budapest would be a more ideal location to help leading researchers focus on the development of biology." They would have rather chosen the site in Hűvösvölgy, Budapest.

One year later, the report written by Brunó Straub F., the Chairman of the Section, informed the Section’s members that "We did not manage to enforce these considerations against the decentralisation efforts of national scientific education related policy and, thus, the final agreement made with the competent authorities identified Szeged as the site of the four institutes to be built." Besides Brunó Straub F., János Szentágothai and István Láng played a key role in the establishment of the institution.

Szeged, a city on the bank of the Tisza River, embraced the decision and was looking forward to seeing the creation of the new scientific centre within its boundaries. The management of the city offered the five-acre area belonging to the Újszeged Botanic Garden as the building lot for the institution: an area located in the city’s green belt, in the immediate vicinity of the well kept park, yet along a main road, in a central location of the city. According to the first plans, this area would have given home to the departments of the Institute of Plant Physiology, the Institute of Genetics, the Institute of Biophysics, as well as the new departments of the Institute of Biochemistry (i.e. those to be established in addition to the already operating Protein Research Department), i.e. the Nucleic Acid, Lipoprotein and Metabolism Regulation departments.

However, the foundation stone laying ceremony took place only as late as in April 1968, on the 23rd anniversary of Hungary’s “liberation”. Three years later, however, in April 1971, Tibor Erdey-Grúz, the President of the Academy at the time, ceremoniously inaugurated the first wing of the institution, implemented as the first project phase. Half of the laboratory building, the shop and the energy generation room already housed the four institutes, where scientific work began then.

However, researchers still had to wait for the completion of the construction of the institution building. During this period, Director General Brunó Straub F. and his colleagues tried to identify the key fields of research. According to their expectations at the time, scientific interest would turn to the regulation of vital processes. They planned to study the regulation of the operation of genes and certain processes of metabolism, the formation of the defence mechanisms of living organisms, the transformation of energy in the photosynthesis process and the formation of the different elements of photosynthesis. They wanted to pay key attention to plant metabolism, with special respect to plants’ virus resistance. Their research plans also included certain issues related to plant, insect and human genetics.

The second, actually official, birth of the BRC took place on 11 October 1973, the date of the opening ceremony. The spiritual father of the Institute, academician Brunó Straub F., Vice President of the HAS („MTA”) at the time, the BRC’s first Director General and leader of the Institute of Biochemistry and the other institute directors – Lajos Alföldi (Genetics), Gábor Farkas (Plant Physiology) and András Garay (Biophysics) – received good wishes, among others, from Nobel laureate Albert Szent-Györgyi, Straub’s master and formerly Szeged-based researcher. What the invitees saw then was a facility complex unparalleled in Hungary and impressing even to Western standards, which was perfectly suitable to serve research activities.

The plan was for 150 researchers to work in the BRC and the presence of an additional 40-45 visiting researchers was also expected. The planned administrative staff number was 350. In the year of the opening of the BRC, the Centre had 325 employees, 95 being researchers.

The organisation had to be designed to fit the dimensions of the facility complex. Accordingly, five independent units were established: four scientific institutes and one Central Management Unit at the beginning, the latter having the responsibility of managing joint matters and of supporting research activities in all possible ways. The directors of the institutes were responsible for the main direction and quality of their respective research activities. One of them – besides his obligations as an institution director – also holds the position of Director General of the whole of the BRC. The Managing Director position is held by the leader of central management and also acts as the Deputy Director General, working in fields outside scientific topics. Matters that concern the whole of the BRC are discussed by the Board of Directors, chaired by the Director General. The materials are prepared for discussion by field committees, assembled of representatives of the different institutes.

Naturally, the directors general of the Centre have left their fingerprints on the history of the BRC. The founder Director General, Brunó Straub F. (1970-1977) exerted a long-lasting influence upon the shaping of the image of the BRC. His intention that researchers working in different scientific fields but in the same facility should work mutually supporting one another has stood the test of time and proven an excellent and viable idea. It was owing to his extensive international relations that Brunó Straub F. could obtain the USD-1.255-million-support from UNESCO-UNDP that was indispensable in the period between 1973 and 1977 for work to start in the BRC. This funding served three fundamental purposes. It was used to cover the costs of the eminent scientific authorities arriving at the Centre from all over the world as advisors. It is also owing to the availability of this support that young Hungarian researchers made study visits abroad, in a combined period of 35 years. Thirdly, this funding enabled the purchasing of a state-of-the-art equipment pool for the BRC, which meets even Western European standards. It is to Brunó Straub F. that we owe thanks for the fact that, in spite of the status quo conservation approach of Hungary’s employment policies prevailing at the time, young researchers were contracted by the BRC for fixed periods and thus had to face regular challenges and appraisals. At the same time, this practice also made it possible for young researchers to leave their superior if they so decided and find a new leader – within the Centre. Though the continuation of this practice is now made difficult by the current funding application system, the spirit of Straub lives in and influences work at the Centre even today.