The Liaison Officer: Taking Non-Research Activities off Scientists’ Minds


You may love research and the academic environment, but this doesn?t necessarily mean that you long for a career at the bench. Opportunities to work with academic research yet out of a lab may not be common, but they surely are not impossible to find. Take the experience of Pieter Jasperse (pictured left), for example. After a PhD in Newcastle, UK, and a series of postdoc positions around Europe, he has finally found within academia the symbiosis between research and science policy he was looking for.

Describing Jasperse?s career as varied, international, and full of unexpected changes would be something of an understatement. After gaining a degree in molecular sciences from Wageningen University in 1991, he left the Netherlands to do his PhD on the structure of membrane protein at the Cell and Molecular Biosciences division of the University of Newcastle's medical school. After 3 years of hard work in the lab, the time came for Jasperse to write up his PhD, but financial hardship meant he also had to find a day job. "This is not an ideal situation, but unfortunately one that many PhD students get into," he admits.

So he went for a 3-month postdoc position at the Max Planck Institute for Biochemistry in Munich, Germany, with the intention of spending every spare minute on his thesis. Three months seemed enough at first, but still it was only after he returned to his roots in Wageningen University for a 1-year postdoc that Jasperse finally closed the chapter on his thesis.

With a PhD in his pocket, other postdoc positions followed in Invergowrie and Warwick, UK, and once more in Munich. Jasperse enjoyed working at the bench, yet he knew this wasn?t something he wanted to do for the rest of his life. Besides, he was longing for a position that didn?t involve the precariousness of short-term contracts.

His hopes were fulfilled when, near the end of his fifth postdoc, he bumped into a college friend at an international congress. While chatting about their respective career paths, Jasperse felt admiration for his friend, who at the time was the co-ordinator of Senter?s Innovation-driven Research Programme (IOP) on Industrial Proteins (see box). As it happened, his friend was about to quit the job, and of course he would not mind helping Jasperse try his luck at taking it over. Along with his friend?s letter of resignation, his CV landed on Senter?s Human Resources desk. And Jasperse?s off-the-bench career began.

Senter and IOP

Senter is an agency of the Netherlands' Ministry of Economic Affairs that is responsible for implementing grant schemes in the fields of technology, energy, environment, and international collaboration. Each innovation-driven research programme ( IOP, for innovatiegericht onderzoeksprogramma) aims to improve collaboration between research and industry in a specific field.

The IOP on Industrial Proteins came to an end in July 2003, and by then Jasperse was ready to get more involved in science policy. He applied for several jobs and got offered his current position of liaison officer at the Leiden Institute of Chemistry. His role is so broad that Jasperse himself finds it difficult to describe. "I?m doing all the things that scientists generally do not want to do," he says; realising that this sounds somewhat negative, he explains that "it just shows the versatility of the job."

Jasperse does not see much of the lab anymore. Most of his time is filled with e-mails, phone calls, and meetings. This is because he has to stay up-to-date with everything that goes on inside and outside the institute?s labs. This includes the institute?s research budgets, main research topics, and exchanges it has with the outside world. Most importantly, Jasperse serves as an internal bridge between the different research groups and the institute?s board, which allocates money to them. He is responsible for translating scientific concepts into business plans and presenting them to the board while representing the interests of the researchers.

A scientific background and research experience--in other words, the ability to understand the scientific jargon and approach--are thus crucial to the job. "I do not know all the latest updates in [the institute scientists'] specific research areas, but I do get pretty far." Although recent graduates tend to take over his type of job, he would advise young scientists to get a few years of research experience after graduation before embarking on a career in science policy. "Even I notice I sometimes have difficulties, but as a recent graduate you will have even less weight," he says, referring to his own experience of negotiations with established professors. Jasperse also feels that the 9 years he spent outside the Netherlands were really helpful, and he would strongly encourage students to spend more time abroad than the 5 or 6 months typically required for a master's degree placement.

Jasperse is expecting the number of policy-related functions within academia to grow in the coming years. "The work I do is not new," he explains. "Professors used to do it in the evening hours themselves." But as non-research activities have become increasingly complex, they have become a separate function in most Dutch institutes.

Even though Jasperse agrees it may be subjective, he believes that dealing with policy within academia is a different job than a policy role within government or industry. Jasperse considered working outside academia several times, but government appeared to him to be "fairly dry," and he felt he just didn?t click with industry. After his few years at Senter, he wanted to return to the academic world, and "I am really glad that I succeeded in that."

Even though Jasperse found the right job within an increasingly high-profile institute in the Netherlands, he would like to emphasise that not being able to enter the institute of your dreams the first time does not mean the end of your career. All you need to do is be more flexible in your wishes and adapt to the possibilities.

So is this going to be Jasperse?s final destination? "I think not, because you have to make a change every couple of years," he says. Not that he has thought about his next career steps yet, given that "I have only just settled!"

Follow Science Careers

Search Jobs

Enter keywords, locations or job types to start searching for your new science career.

Top articles in Careers