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September 27
Letter from IS-MPMI President Regine Kahmann

Two years have passed since the highly successful and scientifically stimulating XVII International Congress on Molecular Plant-Microbe Interactions in Portland in 2016, and it is almost 1 more year to go until IS-MPMI XVIII convenes in Glasgow, Scotland, on July 14–18, 2019. This long period makes you wonder what IS-MPMI and the board of directors have been doing since 2016. 

This year’s efforts of the board of directors have been largely devoted to organizing the 2019 congress in Glasgow together with the local organizers, Paul Birch and John Jones, and the local organizing committee, representing all areas of IS-MPMI in the UK. We have decided in several sessions on the plenary speakers and the chairs of concurrent sessions. The goal has been to generate a mix of established and junior speakers with broad international representation and a good gender balance. Looking at the program, I think we have largely achieved this. It has also been very rewarding to hear that almost without exception, all the invited scientists have agreed to speak. I am also very happy to let you know that the financial situation of our society is such that we will be able to grant travel support to more junior scientists to attend the 2019 congress in Glasgow. The website to apply for this funding will open in early 2019.​

When I took over the presidency from Sheng Yang He in Portland, it was time to restructure the IS-MPMI Interactions platform—our forum to communicate with you. I felt that we should not miss out on the immense expertise of outstanding members of our society who have recently retired. It’s my great pleasure to report that Fred Ausubel, Paola Bonfante, Alan Colmer, Allan Downie, and Dan Klessig readily agreed to my inquiry and will from now on form a team of senior advisors for Interactions that the editor-in-chief can turn to for advice. Brad Day stepped down as editor-in-chief of Interactions, and Dennis Halterman enthusiastically took over the position and is breaking new ground by soliciting participation in particular of our younger members, who among other things have chosen eminent scientists for interviews. I still see room for improvement, i.e., more participation of our members. It would be great if you would tell us the topics you would like to see printed and discussed so that we can focus our efforts on content that matters to our members, in particular the junior members, to keep them excited about science and engaged in our society.

IS-MPMI is a truly international society, and we currently have about 1,000 members from 43 countries. I would be very happy to see more participation by members from all countries with respect to engagement in our society. IS-MPMI is an open society, and views and suggestions from all members are welcome. We would like to communicate with our members, and we appreciate your suggestions on how best to accomplish this goal, especially career advancement for our young members. We desire to foster a strong sense of community.

MPMI, the dedicated journal of our society, has been running smoothly under the expert guidance of John McDowell as editor-in-chief. John has made substantial efforts, together with his editorial team, to increase the visibility of MPMI during difficult times, in which more and more journals are launched and compete for papers. His 3-year term will end in December 2018, and we are happy to announce that Jeanne Harris will take over then. Let me take the opportunity to thank John for all of his time and effort devoted to MPMI. Let me also take the opportunity to thank members of the board of directors for their extremely valuable input during the many calls and for their willingness to take on responsibility for IS-MPMI affairs and advancing the functioning of our society. And a big thank-you to the staff for keeping our input into the daily affairs of the society to a minimum.

With respect to our science, I sense that times are changing: Model systems will certainly continue to be of enormous value by elucidating the basic mechanisms of how microbes interact with plants. When I attended my first IS-MPMI meeting in Interlaken in 1990, I was incredibly proud to be allowed to talk about a system that seemed odd at the time but since has become a model for biotrophic fungal–plant interactions. I find it truly rewarding that it has survived and flourished for three decades and continues to deliver unprecedented and exciting insights. Such models are important and will continue to be so. However, with the advent of new technologies, even difficult-to-handle systems of considerable importance in agriculture are becoming tractable. We should return to these: obligate and emerging pathogens, obligate symbionts, and the transplantation of entire systems, such as nitrogen fixation, into crop plants.

As I write this letter, I am on vacation in my summerhouse at the Baltic Sea. It is one of the driest summers on record, and it is horrifying to see plants getting weak first due to the drought and then succumbing to pathogens. Watching this happen not just in your own garden but also in the neighboring fields tells you that the importance of our work will grow if we want to solve worldwide problems of crop production under changing climate conditions. We need to improve plant productivity and contribute to a sustainable agriculture. The engineering of broad-spectrum and durable resistance continues to be one of the big future challenges. The availability of genome information of the most important crop species, together with modern genome engineering techniques, is expected to spur new initiatives in this direction. Another hurdle I see is that most of our results are obtained and validated in controlled laboratory settings. In most cases, we do not know to what extent traits we have introduced will work out under field conditions, where plants may be exposed not to one but to several threats simultaneously or in succession and/or to slowly changing environments, involving several factors. In this regard, it is shocking that in July 2018, the Court of Justice of the European Union has ruled that gene-edited crops should be subject to the same regulations that are applied to conventional genetically modified organisms—even if they do not contain transgenes. This is a severe blow to the more translational research in our field in all of Europe. I can only hope that those of you who are affected by this ruling will not give up your fight against it.

I will end with a personal note: In one of his letters to you, Sheng Yang He, previous president of our society, voiced that he feels unsatisfied to witness young group leaders struggle to find a new niche and he suggested several solutions. I agree with him that this continues to be a problem. But I see an even deeper problem developing in science in general: Doing science may lose some of its attraction. For me throughout my scientific career, doing science, i.e., solving a scientific problem that you have picked yourself, has been immense fun and highly rewarding. I see this at stake not while you work on solving the problem but when you try to publish it. Our publishing culture, in my view, has eroded to a point that it becomes increasingly impossible to publish exciting new findings quickly, because you are asked to add more and more detail during several rounds of revision, which delays publication to an unacceptable length. Let me make clear that I am not talking about missing controls and/or flaws in the data but about an almost deliberate delay by the reviewers—who are our colleagues. I am afraid that such experiences will seriously damage the interest in basic research and may turn away our most promising young PhDs and post-docs from pursuing a scientific career. We will pick up this discussion with the board of directors and the IS-MPMI community to meet this challenge and develop an effective strategy, because the future also of our scientific field critically depends on the young scientists and their excitement, engagement, and fun in doing science and tackling the unknown.

I am very much looking forward to seeing many of you in Glasgow next year.

Best wishes,

Regine Kahmann, President

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