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GeoPolicy: One American’s way into the European Commission

GeoPolicy: One American’s way into the European Commission

An unsolicited email to a LinkedIn connection holding the title “science communicator” led me to the European Commission. My journalism master’s thesis was now complete, and I was in hasty pursuit of a career in citizen engagement of science. The EGU’s Policy Officer Chloe Hill responded to my spontaneous request for career direction and forwarded me a running list of science-policy traineeships and fellowships. I quickly spotted a perfect fit. It was my field and it was stationed in Italy. That posting would become a dream come true.

With luck and time on my side, the Joint Research Centre’s (JRC) Exploratory Research Unit was recruiting a native English speaker for their science communication traineeship. The project leaders appreciated my interest in EU public understanding of science evident in my research and Erasmus Mundus journalism degree curriculum. Unfortunately, my nationality posed a problem. The EU generally doesn’t typically hire Americans and as a result, the hiring process took a few more signatures and steps compared with other EU employees. Traineeship applicants can however, come from anywhere. My future boss sought and secured permission from the higher-ups to grant my traineeship position and after a few months in bureaucratic recruitment limbo, I was in.

Orienting myself as a science communicator

The role of a science communicator depends largely on the financial relationship between researchers and their benefactors. Sponsorship warrants visibility. In the US, the prominence of research from universities and private labs creates a need for science communicators who can write grants. This cloistered audience has its own rigid guidelines for messaging and interaction. In the EU where supranational labs directly inform policy decisions, communicators must engage tax payers and the policy makers. That means science communicators here get to write to diverse segmented populations split along lines of political parties, borders of members states, and social boundaries among citizens. This dynamic environment invites creative and strategic messengers. A space I could grow into.

Life as a JRC trainee

I arrived at the JRC in Ispra, Italy with no indication of what my actual duties would entail. The original recruitment expression of interest was as vague as I was eager. Quickly though, I was set to my tasks and made an integral part of my unit. Work was fun and challenging. From week one, I was authoring reports, designing workshops, and envisioning communication strategies for groundbreaking science projects. As time went on, my advisor gave me the opportunity to choose my own projects that supported our unit mission. I bridged my background in climate science communication and media production to catalyse engagement efforts in nuclear safeguards, ocean conservation, and automated vehicles. The workplace mobility that I was afforded and significance of my contributions made me feel useful. That impression doesn’t always happen with a traineeship or internship. Work gripped my curiosity and I followed with fervor.

Life at the JRC is easy. The Commission has organised the initiation process and living situation so that employees can hit the ground running. Trainees get a loaner bike, a snazzy apartment across the street for cheap, free language courses, health insurance, and to the envy of UN interns… a livable stipend. Best of all, people are welcoming. The first day I was greeted alongside 15 other trainees from across Europe with the warmest of welcomes. My HR adviser picked me up and drove me around the research site to point out important buildings and ground me in my new home. This convivial atmosphere would continue throughout my traineeship.

Life at the JRC is fun. The self-hailed “traineeland” community comprises all trainees and involves daily get-togethers on and off campus. Traineeland provided ready-made friendships and opportunities to invest oneself into the JRC and local Italian community. Throughout my five months, we hosted and attended educational events across campus, did Saturday yoga on the lakeshore, ran as a group through the forests, cooked common dinners, hiked the alps, and always went to Mensa on Wednesdays. It was truly heavenly, as I often commented during gatherings.

Advice to future applicants

The European Commission posts its trainee and contract vacancies through a running portal. The site constantly updates with new jobs in every field of science and level of staff management. For recent grads like myself, I recommend first applying to a trainee position. Unless you have a PhD with a very related focus and five years of experience, it can prove difficult to secure a well-salaried research position. A traineeship offers you a chance work and learn how to navigate inside the European Commission. Once here, you the support system and connection to pursue a career. Without inside experience, the hiring process can be daunting. There are a handful of contract types each with its own unique application methods. Best bet: apply for a traineeship. The exposure, community, and connections that you will receive at the European Commission as a trainee will equip you with the acumen and insights needed to build a career at an international organisation.

 What did my supervisors want in an applicant? Aside from my language skills for their writing position, my interviewers were looking for international experience, adaptability to multiple tasks, and willingness to contribute new ideas. I cannot imagine a more diverse place than the JRC. Language, research field, nationality, and experience were common factors in daily operations. My interviewers wanted to know how well I could collaborate in an environment with teams from diverse nations, backgrounds, and scientific fields. Their call for adaptability to multitasking is not a euphemism for a coffee maker or a “wasserträger”. The JRC has a myriad of projects that often overlap with other departments, therefore contributors must know how to switch tasks effectively and work with multiple timelines. Finally, many teams want a trainee who can deliver a new perspective. Trainees are seen, unofficially, as a source of spiritedness and vibrancy to the hyper-focused scientific output machine that is the JRC. This anticipation of ingenuity from trainees opens opportunities for them to make their mark on projects by contributing their perspective and expertise. I recommendation interviewees demonstrate their professionalism, exemplify their adaptability, highlight one or two related experiences, and let their enthusiasm for his or her field and community shine.

Saying goodbye?

In an effort to network outside my unit, I wrote and delivered a short speech on science communication. Several units allowed me to speak at their monthly meeting. I wanted to show others how sci comm could improve their output visibility, as well as demonstrate the utility of someone with my skillset. I took this effort further by drafting communication strategies in my free time for units without one. I often got as a response, “I wish you were staying, we have some interesting projects coming up.” I wished so too.

After a fast and full five months, I completed my traineeship. As I prepared to shut down my computer for the last time, an email popped up. It read that I had been accepted as an external expert for one year. An audience member from one of my past speeches recalled my purpose and had recommended me for the position. I was and am ecstatic. There is no one way to secure a position here. Aside from traineeships, I recommend familiarising yourself with a JRC initiative and aligning yourself with their efforts. Connect with people through LinkedIn, on collaborative international projects through university connections, and by applying on the vacancies list. Familiarise yourself with European Commission projects by following EU Science Hub social media channels. Also, feel free to reach out to me any time via LinkedIn or a.w.mckinnon@gmail.com.

 

I expect that each new work day will continue to surprise me and hope that every new connection could be one for life. The JRC gave me the opportunity to pour my acumen and education into projects that, from my limited perspective, made an impact on the lives of EU citizens. I am eager to get going again.

By Aaron McKinnon, Communication Strategy Expert at the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre

GeoPolicy: Horizon Geoscience!

GeoPolicy: Horizon Geoscience!

For the last few months the EGU has been working towards both hosting a dinner debate in Brussels, Belgium, and publishing the Horizon 2020 Geoscience Survey Report which was based on a survey conducted within the geoscience community earlier this year. Both of these endeavours were undertaken together with the European Federation of Geologists (EFG) and had similar aims: to enhance collaboration between policymakers and scientists and to improve the geoscience community’s science-policy engagement.

Horizon 2020 Geoscience Survey Report – key findings

Earlier this year, the EGU together with the EFG, conducted the Horizon 2020 Geoscience Survey to collect feedback on areas of the EU’s Horizon 2020 research funding programme that the geoscience community felt should be continued or extended and those which could be improved upon in the upcoming EU research framework programme, Horizon Europe.

This survey was conducted during the 2018 EGU General Assembly and many of you may remember either completing it or seeing posters around the convention centre advertising the opportunity.

Does this look familiar? Advertisement for the Horizon 2020 Geoscience Survey

Due to its thematic diversity and its size, the geoscience community has a significant representation within European research programmes. The survey aimed to give researchers who have taken part in Horizon 2020, or who plan to take part in Horizon Europe, the opportunity to voice their opinion.

Although the survey asked a wide variety of questions, only those where clear results were found were included in the Horizon 2020 Geoscience Survey Report. However, all of the survey responses (quantitative and qualitative) can be seen online here. Qualitative responses supported by the quantitative answers and cited by numerous survey respondents were also included in the report and give insight into some of the answers from respondents.

The full report was publicly released during the Horizon Geoscience dinner debate (which is summarised below) along with a more condensed 2-page summary. Some of the key results that are outlined in detail in the report include:

    1. 1. Generally, survey respondents felt very positively about the impact that the Horizon 2020 Programme had on collaboration (both across EU countries and between scientific disciplines)

 

 

    1. 2. Despite many areas within the geosciences being used by the private sector, survey respondents generally felt that Horizon 2020 had only been moderately successful in generating private sector investment within the geosciences. 48% of respondents believed that the programme was somewhat generating private sector investment, but only 6% thought it was generating it to a large extent.

    3. 24% of respondents thought that the distribution of projects between applied and fundamental research was not fair at all.

For more details on these results and others, please read the full Horizon 2020 Geoscience Survey Report.

Horizon Geoscience: overcoming societal challenges, creating change

The Horizon Geoscience dinner debate was held on the evening of September 26 in Brussels. Co-organised by the EFG, the event included a mix of scientists, industry leaders and policymakers from a range of different areas within the Commission.

Panel members during the Horizon Geoscience dinner debate. From Left to right: Jonathan Bamber, John Ludden Lieve Weirinck, Jean-Eric Paquet and Vitor Correia

The evening was opened by both the EGU President Jonathan Bamber and the EFG President Vitor Correia. As EGU’s policy officer, I presented some of the key results from the Horizon Geoscience Survey, after which Iain Stewart set the scene for the evening.

One of the highlights of the evening was the high-level panel session which gave the evening’s participant’s the opportunity to hear from respected representatives from the EU Parliament, EU Commission, and geoscience community, namely:

  • Lieve Wierinck, Belgian Member of the European Parliament,
  • Jean-Eric Paquet, Director-General at the European Commission’s DG for Research & Innovation
  • John Ludden, British Geological Survey Chief Executive

The round-table discussions that were held during dinner also sparked a lively debate and highlighted things that need to be addressed to tackle societal challenges

Some of the key things that were mentioned during these round-table discussions included the importance of increasing public trust in both science and policymaking, the need for greater dialogue between the sectors, and the need to integrate early career scientists within industry, academia and policy.

For an extensive summary of the dinner debate please see the EGU news item, EGU and EFG establish dialogue with policy makers on how the geosciences can help overcome Europe’s major societal challenges.

If you have any questions regarding the report of the Horizon Geoscience dinner debate, please don’t hesitate to get in touch via policy@egu.eu.