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14 October 2016

Dennis Eriksson: from lab to desk

For nine months, Dennis Eriksson worked at the European Plant Science Organisation (EPSO) in Brussels. Otherwise, he works in Mistra Biotech. The exchange was funded by Mistra through the Mistra Fellows initiative.

‘It was a rewarding experience. For me, after my long years of scientific work in plant research, meeting decision-makers in my research area was useful.’

The Mistra Fellows programme is an initiative aimed at building collaboration, and boosting exchange of knowledge, between Mistra’s various research groups and international research organisations. The plan is to enable up to four researchers a year to work in an international organisation, with a focus on policy issues.

The initiative gave Dennis Eriksson of Mistra Biotech the opportunity to work at the European Plant Science Organisation (EPSO) in Brussels. This independent organisation represents research institutes and universities in more than 30 countries on issues relating to plant research and plant improvement.

‘It was a hugely enjoyable time and a rewarding experience. Above all I learnt how, with my academic perspective, I can work in relation to politicians and other decision-makers.’

In practice, this has meant switching from the lab to a desk during the year. Eriksson has used his new location to raise issues of plant research and plant improvement, both in the European Parliament and in dealings with the European Commission.

‘It’s been exciting and instructive to see how these institutions work on our issues, but also very rewarding to start realising what we, as researchers working in academia, can and should do. One insight is that all too often, unfortunately, science is overshadowed by other EU political interests.

Working close to the European Parliament

During the year, jointly with MEPs, Eriksson has given lectures and presentations, and held discussions in the European Parliament.

‘We got a good response to the events we arranged. One result was debate articles written by parliamentarians.’

Meeting decision-makers, in particular, is something Eriksson values highly. In his opinion, more researchers engaged in practical work should take the opportunity of learning more about how decisions are made.

‘It’s useful from an individual point of view, but those of us on the research side can also contribute invaluable knowledge for the decision-makers. It’s tremendously important for the future of plant research and plant improvement that science gets enough influence over decisions in the EU.’

Now Eriksson is home again, and the hope is that he will be able to keep working on policy issues. One sphere of work is the international network he has established during the year, in which he is now the hub. This group is now working intensively to find funding from the EU or national sources for its own further work. He also hopes to be able to carry on working on issues concerning the rules for various techniques of plant improvement, in Mistra Biotech and elsewhere.

Potentially rewarding time out for others

All Eriksson’s good experience from his Mistra Fellowship prompts him to recommend other researchers to seek funding for a year abroad. But his recommendation is not wholly unreserved.

‘For your future career, it’s important to join the right organisation. So be careful when you choose who you want to work for. For me, EPSO was perfect: through them, I was able to build up my network.

‘Think about the timing, too. Unfortunately, it may be difficult to return to a research position if you haven’t done practical work for a whole year and thus haven’t published any direct research results either. These risks are, in many cases, outweighed by the benefit of seeing the world from another angle.’

For researchers wishing to follow in Dennis Eriksson’s footsteps, the rule is that the Mistra programmes they work in must apply to Mistra. The application must state who the planned researcher is, which foreign institution the researcher envisages working at, and what the programme and the researcher aim to attain through the research visit.

‘Our criteria for awarding funding are that each researcher must work in a high-priority subject area and be associated with one of our programmes. There must also be a need for an exchange of information between Mistra’s work and the host body, which is often some form of think tank,’ says Christopher Folkeson Welch, Mistra’s Programmes Director.

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