Published 2019-01-10

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Key to the world from a flexible Mistra

In Mistra’s early years, Mistra Fellowships were already being used to strengthen young researchers’ international networks. The very first Fellowship went to Valentin Foltescu, a physicist and environmentalist. For him, the world opened up.

‘It was an experience I recommend to everyone, especially those whose work is scientifically oriented. I studied the natural sciences and now the door to the policy world opened. That, I saw, is where you can make things happen. It gave me a new perspective and a new attitude,’ says Valentin Foltescu about Mistra Fellows, an initiative aimed at helping young researchers acquaint themselves with the world outside Sweden.

He is currently in Paris, working at UN Environment, in the Climate and Clean Air Coalition Secretariat. There, he leads initiatives and investigations on air quality and climate around the world. The key is to find solutions that eliminate obstacles and inertia. Next year, his work will include investigating how Africa can improve its air quality.

‘There’s a severe data shortage. Comprehensive policies are lacking in many countries and it’s difficult to implement them.’

Foltescu, born in Bucharest, moved to Sweden in his late teens. Initially, he studied physics, radio physics and environmental science at university. After focusing closely on theory, he gained highly practical work experience during his doctoral studies: surveying concentrations of airborne particles by conducting measurement campaigns.

After obtaining his PhD, he began to look for places where he could develop. This coincided with Mistra’s inception. Right from the start, Mistra had the idea that research should be conducted in long-term programmes. Meanwhile, Mistra was also funding individual research projects. In 1996, Foltescu managed to convince Mistra that he should become a Mistra Fellow and get the opportunity to do research at an international institution in his field.

‘Mistra was very flexible. I was able to propose the research I thought was interesting and useful, and where the Fellowship should be hosted. At first, I was approved for an institute in Ireland. But when I discovered that the opportunities were greater at the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre in Italy, there was no problem changing.’

He stayed for a year and a half, and was then recruited to the Swedish Meteorological and Hydrological Institute (SMHI).

‘I could have stayed another six months, but SMHI was the workplace I was aiming for.’

Foltescu remained there for 12 years. From SMHI, his career path led in turn to the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency, the European Environment Agency and now the UN.

What he found most rewarding during his time as a Fellow was the proximity to politics and insight he gained into its importance for improving the environment. This is, moreover, what he is doing today in the UN. He sees how difficult improving air quality is in countries where legislation is lacking or the rules are not followed.

In the western world, air quality has improved considerably over the past 40 years, thanks to intensive work on air quality. The Nordic countries have been the driving force. However, according to Foltescu, Europe still has problems with poor air quality in many places.

‘With a political will, it’s easier to make changes. We see examples of that in Asia. Beijing’s air has improved considerably over just a few years, although a great deal of work remains to be done.’