Published 2017-10-31

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Arctic programme head joins prestigious scientific council

Carina Keskitalo, Programme Director of Mistra Arctic Sustainable Development, has become a member of the prestigious High Level Group of Scientific Advisors of the EC Scientific Advice Mechanism. Her first assignment will be to investigate the question of how we can get more food from the seas and oceans.

Carina Keskitalo describes her new assignment as follows: ‘We’re going to do a quick survey of how we get food from marine sources, using both existing literature and all the academies in Europe. It’s partly reminiscent of how a Mistra programme is run, but here everything’s happening at a turbocharged rate.’

About a year ago, the European Commission’s High Level Group of Scientific Advisors of the EC Scientific Advice Mechanism (SAM HLG, the Scientific Advice Mechanism High Level Group) took over the previous function of the EU’s Scientific Advisor. The current group comprises seven scientists, against the one (most recently, Anne Glover) who held the post before. This makes the work more stable. Another news item is that the collaborative organisations for all Europe’s academies have a cooperation contract with the group.

‘All in all, it helps us to develop a solid knowledge foundation and at the same time, perhaps, makes us more resistant to pressure campaigns, if any,’ Keskitalo says.

She is one of the two social scientists in the group, which otherwise consists of scientists and mathematicians. They include the geneticist and cell biologist Paul Nurse, awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 2001, and star mathematician and Fields Medal winner Cédric Villani. Rolf-Dieter Heuer, the former Director General of CERN, is the current Chair of the group.

Coordinating role for new knowledge

SAM HLG is intended to serve as a scientific project leader, assessing and choosing from the issues to which the European Commission seeks answers. When this work is completed, the members activate researchers around the EU. To help them, they have a powerful secretariat with ample resources at their disposal. As soon as an issue is to be investigated, it can also engage both the secretariat and the European academies. When the Commission asks for something, all those involved do their utmost.

The issue of food from the oceans is to be investigated for roughly six months, followed by a peer review and purchaser meetings.

‘It’s incredibly quick. Normally, this is a task that people in a normal research programme have a considerably longer time to complete,’ Keskitalo says.

The group can also reject assignments, and this has happened.

‘We’re independent and can ask for proposals to be reformulated, or turn them down in whole or in part, and we’ve already done that on a few occasions. We’ve only existed for a year and a half, so it’s bound to happen again,’ she says.

Focus on new foods from the sea

The seven members are currently on contractual terms of up to two and a half years, which can be extended once. Keskitalo used to be a stand-in and became a full member last November, when a former member of the group retired. The members are selected after a recommendation process among European and global organisations. Keskitalo was recommended by the Global Young Academy, where she worked for five years.

She is now busy getting answers to the question of how the seas and oceans can help to meet our future food requirements. Fish will not be the primary source; rather, the focus will be on plankton and algae. The task is an interdisciplinary one and the questions the group are seeking to answer range widely, from market forces to new technological potential.

By year-end 2017 the project is expected to arrive at conclusions and recommendations. At this stage, it is important to have purchasers, and at the meetings Keskitalo will confront various interests in the form of lobbyists. But to her this is no daunting prospect.

‘At best, we can get help from the lobbyists. But we’ll see — the assignment of getting more food from the sea hasn’t gone through that phase yet.’