InterviewsNew ESF head sets out plans for the future
[Date: 2008-03-07 ]
On 1 January, Marja Makarow took over as Chief Executive of the European Science Foundation (ESF), the first woman to lead the organisation since its foundation over 30 years ago. She is well suited to the position; over the past decade, she has built up a strong reputation in the science policy field, both in her native Finland and elsewhere.
On a trip to Brussels, Professor Makarow took time out from her busy schedule to tell CORDIS News about her career so far, where she plans to take the ESF and her views on women in science.
A biochemist by training, Professor Makarow recalls the moment when she realised that she wanted to embark on a scientific career. It came during a research project which formed part of her Masters degree at the University of Helsinki.
'I was lucky to sort of just by accident get into a group which was absolutely fantastic,' she says. 'I really understood that they were creating new knowledge, via experiments. That was very inspiring.'
She stayed in Helsinki to do her PhD, before moving to the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg, Germany, to carry out her post doctoral research. The focus of her studies was the way proteins are transported in mammalian cells to the outside of the cell.
She then returned to Helsinki, where she investigated how proteins are moved around inside the cell and how the cell ensures that proteins are folded to obtain the correct, three-dimensional structure.
Professor Makarow first became involved in the policy-making arena ten years ago, when she was nominated as a member of the Academy of Finland's Research Council for Health.
'I immediately realised that I liked to work for the scientific community,' she states enthusiastically. Until then, she says, she was 'a completely passionate sort of researcher focussing only on my own research'. This new post gave her an overview of the wider research landscape, as well as an insight into the policies behind decisions to target money to certain areas in science.
Other, similar appointments soon followed, both in Finland and elsewhere in Europe. Her most important posts include membership of the Finnish delegation to the EMBL and its sister organisation the European Molecular Biology Conference (EMBC). Other organisations which have benefited from her expertise include Science Foundation Ireland, the Austrian Ministry for Science and Research and Research Foundation Flanders.
She is also a member of Finland's National Council for Science and Technology Policy, which is chaired by the Prime Minister and reports to the government. 'That is of course a fantastic place to learn and also to have an impact on how funds are targeted in the country for research,' Professor Makarow comments.
Turning to her new job, she is clear that the ESF has a key role to play in the European Research Area. In her eyes, the organisation should be a mediator between the national research funding organisations on the one hand, and the European Commission on the other.
One of the biggest challenges in European research at the moment is working out how to encourage individual countries to pool more money for common research programmes. Professor Makarow believes that the ESF's 'Forward Looks' could be a useful tool to achieve this goal.
In a Forward Look, an important subject is identified and leading experts are brought together to carry out an analysis of the status quo in the field. They then evaluate how the subject is likely to evolve, its importance to society and its needs in terms of education, infrastructure and funding.
'So then a European level analysis would be available for the national funders. They could decide if it is relevant for them or not,' she states. The advice would of course also be available for the Commission.
Regarding the ESF's relationship with the Commission, Professor Makarow says that her organisation hopes to intensify its dialogue with DG Research. 'ESF must be in harmony with the programmes of the Commission and the Commission should take advantage of ESF as an expert body, as a channel to scientific experts,' she says.
Professor Makarow is the first woman to head up the ESF since its foundation over 30 years ago, and she describes the issue of women in science as 'very close to my heart'. Asked how more women could be encouraged into science in the first place, she replies that it is partly a question of perception. Women tend to pick fields which are linked in some way to human beings, societies, animals and the environment, she says.
She gives the example of information and communication technology courses at the Helsinki University of Technology. Despite outreach campaigns to girls in schools, the proportion of women applying to these courses remained stubbornly low, at around 10%. 'Then they created a programme which is called bio-information technology,' she says, adding in a whisper: 'It's basically the same thing.' Around 70% of the applicants to this 'new' course were women, and Professor Makarow believes there is no reason why other courses could not re-brand themselves in the same way.
Moving up the career ladder, she highlights the importance of providing women with more encouragement and role models. Ultimately though, she emphasises that the problem is a complicated one. For example, for scientists from small countries like Finland, a spell abroad is vital if a researcher wants to advance in his or her career. However, women who have small children are less likely to move abroad for their post-doctoral studies, putting them at a real disadvantage compared to their male counterparts.
'So we are dealing with very subtle and complex and difficult things,' she says. 'I think we have to be worried about the situation.'
Meanwhile, it is to be hoped that, by taking over at the ESF at such an important time for European science, Professor Makarow herself will be a source of inspiration to future scientists, both male and female.
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Data Source Provider: CORDIS News interview with Professor Marja Makarow
Document Reference: Based on a CORDIS News interview with Professor Marja Makarow
Subject Index: Legislation, Regulations; Life Sciences; Policies; Scientific Research