Raising the Profile of European Research


It was in 1989 when I applied for a job at a big multinational company that I realised I had become a strange animal. I spent a full day in various IQ and psycho tests, and the examiners were somewhat puzzled by the results, which portrayed me as someone with a genuine interest and some competence in both the scientific and literary areas. And they were right! The profile they drew correctly reflected the fact that I have a PhD in physical chemistry, obtained in 1986 from the Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB), and that I have been writing stories since the age of 10.

Throughout the 1980s I was a researcher, working successively in ULB's department of organic physical chemistry, in the department of radiology at the Erasme University Hospital in Brussels (during a nonmilitary national service), and then in biotechnology and the chemical industry. At that time I had no precise career development plan. My first choice was to pursue my basic research in academia, but no permanent post was available. On the other hand, I was also very much interested in popularising science. In addition--or, more precisely, in parallel--to my scientific activities I was a freelance scientific journalist and writer from 1980, working sometimes through the night and over the weekends.

I sometimes felt like a scientific version of the famous Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. As I am sure other colleagues have experienced, my writing was not taken into account in my professional appraisal while I was a scientific researcher. When I mentioned to university colleagues that I was also working as a science journalist, sometimes the only reaction I got was--at best--a kind of polite smile. ... Anyway this sort of feedback did not stop me! Next month I will publish my fourth book, which tries to predict scientific progress in the 21st century.

We all know that relationships between scientists and journalists can be difficult. But today, when I give presentations and speeches, I often try to underline the similarities between them. Indeed, both scientists and journalists are in search of the 'truth', they both 'construct' stories, they are both working hard and under pressure to publish first, and they are both looking for 'news'.

But to return to the early 1990s, I was clearly at a turning point in my career. I noticed my declining interest in carrying out R&D (which in industry is more about 'D'--development--than 'R'--research). On the other hand my journalistic activities were taking off. I was contributing to several newspapers (including the short-lived The European in London) and magazines, as well as to French-speaking Belgian television.

In 1992 I stumbled upon an advertisement. The European Commission (EC), it said, wanted to recruit scientific writers and was looking for people with both a scientific background and information/communication experience. I decided to apply. As usual, a specific competition was organised for each linguistic category. Over 500 French-speaking candidates applied; it took 1 year to pass the series of examinations, and in the end just two people were recruited!

Thus I joined the EC in February 1994 and I was affiliated to the Information Unit of 'DG XII' (now called the Directorate-General for Research) as an information and press officer.

At this point I must say a few words about my current employer (especially for non-European readers). The EC is Europe's public administration. It embodies and upholds the general interest of the union. The president and 19 commissioners are appointed by the member states after they have been approved by the European Parliament. They are assisted by 30 or so directorates-general (DGs) of which the Research DG is one of the biggest with 1400 staff.

Doing science PR at the EC is not fundamentally different from journalism. We have to identify good stories, provide new messages, and collect interviews. Indeed some (perhaps lazy) journalists simply cut and paste our (good) press releases. Of course I must be loyal to my institution but I do not see this as a constraint. I am convinced European research is more effective when carried out or co-ordinated at the European level. Furthermore thanks to the European Research Area initiative launched by the EC, our unit covers European research from a broad perspective--not just concentrating on EC-supported activities (see, for example, our research headlines).

Michel Claessens accompanies Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin at the FP6 launch conference in Brussels in November 2002.

Working for the EC is a wonderful experience. It is a very dynamic, open, and multicultural environment that provides a very good overview of what is going on in Europe. What's more, there is a lot of assistance and support available for our activities. For example, there are specialised units that can help you in, say, publishing a document, organising a conference, designing a multimedia product, etc; we also have contracts with external companies that provide us with professional advice and technical assistance in our PR activities. Meanwhile, because our unit has developed some expertise and professional recognition, our hierarchy leaves us much freedom to suggest and organise events, publications, pilot studies, etc. For my part, I am the father of RTD info (our magazine on European research) and the Framework Programme launch conferences. And following my proposal, the DG is now investigating the possibility of organising AAAS-type conferences in Europe. Another interesting aspect of working for the EC is the fact that the research programmes managed by the EC are not just European: 32 countries are associated to them, and there are bilateral agreements with several countries (the United States, China, Argentina, India, etc). And, the cherry on the cake, EC salaries are (still) attractive for most European nationals.

Of course, as for any corporate communications officer, my work must be of excellent quality as it directly impacts on the organisation's image. Some of our press releases reach more than 3000 journalists worldwide. Our magazine has a circulation of 85,000 copies and is read by over 500,000 people in 140 countries.

Compared with my previous jobs I like working for a civil administration very much. The French expression 'service public' also means for me 'service (to the) public'. Hence our audience is the public at large. Our mission is to inform the tax-payers of the results and benefits coming out of European research. Given our limited resources (our unit has 18 staff), our activities concentrate on the so-called 'information relays', such as the media, professional organisations, etc, although we do enjoy some direct contact with the public and in particular the young (whose declining interest to science studies and careers is worrying) through presentations, visits, open days, etc. And also, as is the case for most PR people, we have to promote 'internal communication', especially in a big organisation such as ours.

My background and previous experience are very useful for the job I am doing here. While there are excellent science journalists with no science background, I feel at ease in almost any scientific and technological area (at least at a quite general level) and my journalistic experience allows me to draft press releases, speeches, and articles at short notice.

But my job is more than just media relations. As well as editing RTD info, my other tasks and responsibilities include information activities, editorial and publication policy, and the organisation of external events. For example I co-ordinated the organisation of the Sixth Framework Programme launch conference in Brussels on 11 to 13 November last year which attracted 8300 participants and 300 journalists! Since the beginning of May this year I have been appointed acting head of our department, which means that I am responsible for the overall information and communication strategy and activities of the DG.

If there is a downside to my story it is that there are not many posts for science communicators at the EC. We have only four university ('A grade') posts in the unit. I was recruited at a time when the director-general had recognised that the DG's PR activities were vastly underdeveloped. Today people are recruited through the standard procedure ( big competitions with a research strand), although readers should know that about 50% of our staff is hired under temporary or interim contracts. Nonetheless I am happy to see that, following a proposal I made, experience in science communication is now among the selection criteria for candidates applying for jobs in Research DG.

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