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The Wild Geese Network of Irish Scientists

Interview with Dr. James P. Gavigan

Minister-Counsellor – Head of Science, Technology and Innovation

EU Delegation to the U.S. --- Washington D.C.


Tell me about your education and early career.  What sparked your initial interest in science?

From early on and all the way through my secondary schooling, I had some great teachers particularly a Cistercian monk who taught mathematics.  He introduced us to fantastic things outside the syllabus including an early introduction to computers which had a big impact on me.  I also discovered that I had a basic aptitude for science without making any initial conscious choice in this direction.  Like most things, you find out over time that you’re better at some things than others.  After secondary school, I went on to study science at Trinity College Dublin.  The conventional thinking at the time suggested that those good at maths and science should go into engineering. However, I wasn't so sure that engineering was for me so, having first chosen engineering in my university CAO application, I introduced a last-minute change-of-mind switching my first choice from engineering to science in order, I felt, to keep my options open. I went into science and so began my journey first with a bachelor’s degree in Physics at Trinity in 1985.   Coming towards the end of my bachelor’s degree, I resisted again peer pressure to aim for a job in industry and began instead looking into the possibilities of doing a post graduate degree.  I learned from a professor and one of his students of opportunities to get a grant to study abroad in the European Union. The idea of moving overseas was very alluring to me. Then, in the final year of my bachelor’s degree, another professor in Trinity invited me to join his research group to take part in a collaborative research project involving around 60 laboratories from all over Europe.  He offered to send me to different partner labs to get up to speed and learn different experimental techniques and also to spend most of my time in Grenoble, France.  I loved the idea immediately.  The professor took me into his laboratory in Trinity during that initial summer and then the following September I went to work for a month in a lab at the University of Birmingham.  After that I went to a laboratory of the French National Research Centre (CNRS) in Grenoble where I ended up doing most of the research for my PhD. Over the three years, I also spent as much time in Trinity College Dublin as in Grenoble as well as substantial – though shorter - periods in Parma (Italy) and Nijmejen (The Netherlands).


Did you always want to work internationally?  You speak a few languages – how important is it for young scientists looking to work in continental Europe to have a second or third language?  

I was always fond of languages. In school and I had a great French teacher.  I felt confident in having a good grounding in French when I arrived in Grenoble.  When I started working there, I was able to rapidly revive my secondary school French and my French colleagues were delighted to help me out.  I was immediately taken into a totally French speaking environment.  Of course, I had added value in the research lab as a native English speaker where I was able to provide valuable input for scientific publications and international correspondence.  Speaking French gave me extra contact to the local environment, to colleagues and to the French culture in general.   For me, I would say that having the language was absolutely vital in developing my career at that point.  I also spent several months of my time in Grenoble going back and forth to a laboratory in Parma, Italy.  Given my French experience, I wanted to have the same in Italy.  So I went to the Italian cultural institute in Grenoble to get a grounding in Italian before I began travelling there regularly and that really helped.  It was evident while I was there (in France and Italy) that others who did not make the same effort to immerse themselves in the language and culture did not have the same rich experience as I did.  I would conclude by saying that language and cultural immersion are both very important and enriching components to a successful professional experience in any other European country.


After your PhD research project in France what were the next steps in your career?

My PhD was awarded by Trinity in 1988.  I then got a grant from the European Commission to do a Post Doc period in Grenoble in the same laboratory where I did my PhD research.  Just before the start of my post doc, I got married and soon had children and so I also began looking for stable employment.  My colleagues in France were keen for me to apply for a staff position at the research centre in Grenoble which I did.  At the same time I submitted an application for scientific posts at the European Commission in response to an ad which my mother had clipped from one of the Irish newspapers and posted to me in France.  I was at this stage somewhat familiar with the European Commission through the Commission staff I had met who were in charge of monitoring the European projects and grants I had been working on.  Indeed, as a result, I was  attracted by the idea of a job dedicated to promoting scientific collaboration.  My Commission program officer had been a great source of inspiration to me while I was in the lab in Grenoble doing my PhD.  I did the required interviews and was put on the reserve list for Commission scientific posts.  Basically, in my family situation at the time, I was willing to take the first offer that came.  It happened that the first offer that came was from the European Commission.  I then had to make a hard decision to leave behind my research career. However I was very enthusiastic for my new job at the Commission.  It meant moving to Brussels to a full-time permanent job which provided me and my young family with more certainty and financial security at the time.  I also felt it was a job where I could hit the ground running, at least in terms of my familiarity with the science.  It did mean however, moving into a public administration world which was initially completely foreign to me.  I needed to learn the structure, hierarchy and workings of the Commission bureaucracy.  But that was also an interesting challenge.   One of my motto's I have maintained over my career to-date has been that as long as I’m learning something new and challenging, I’m stimulated.  At the outset, learning the ropes at the Commission and understanding the logic of a public policy and public administration system was interesting.  After some time as a project officer, I needed a new challenge.  In this role, I was working initially on programme and project evaluation, monitoring and management - the type of work I had seen being done from the other side when I was in the lab.  But after a while that lost its attraction in the sense that it was repetitive and I was gradually moving away from the science.  I was doing repetitive administrative work while conducting evaluations, selecting projects and negotiating.  So that was the stimulus to move out of that role and look for something with more added value in the Commission.   I got involved in some program design work and eventually after four years, I moved to a policy research center of the Commission in Seville which was doing upstream policy research and analysis.  This move represented a jump back into research but of a very different type (i.e. policy research) and the opportunity to  get involved in economic and socio-economic analysis, assessments and studies of relevance to science and science policy.  


How did your education prepare you for your role at the EU? 

I think I had a very good foundation in science overall which was a great help, but when I moved into the public-policy and public-administration world of the Commission, I also found myself drawing on some very basic skills in writing, analysis and argumentation which, in my case, I had largely developed at secondary school in Ireland.  I found that these helped me in making quick inroads into the policy analysis world of the Commission. Indeed, I rapidly understood in the Commission that one's capacity to analyse and write clearly and succinctly was crucial to capturing and communicating ideas with peers, superiors and outside stakeholders and that this is different from the type of scientific writing which I had almost exclusively done in my years as a research physicist.  I also noticed that, in relative terms, the abilities which had been inculcated into me in my school days in Ireland gave me on average an edge over many of my colleagues.  It was a pleasant surprise that my school training turned out to be so valuable in this regard.  Something else which was unexpected and surprising for me was my dealings with colleagues who were trained in the social sciences; economics, socio-economics, sociology, political science, etc.  The difference in mindset and approach of social scientists in terms of analyzing problems and looking at options compared to those trained in hard sciences and engineering is notable.  Hard scientists take a more logical and rigorously minded approach compared to the more contingent approach of social scientists.  I found myself sometimes talking past colleagues because of a very different world view and this was something that baffled me for a long time.  When in Seville, where a lot of economists worked alongside scientists and engineers, this was where the different ways of working and different approaches came sharply into focus for me. 


What advice would you give emerging scientists and post docs setting out on early career, given your experience?

To a scientist interested in pursuing a non-academic or non-research path, my advice would be to be aware of the importance of generic skills and abilities that will prove to be very important in addition to your own detailed scientific knowledge.  The ability to communicate both in written and oral forms, is absolutely vital.  You need to be able to understand that a scientific world view is not the only one that matters.  You will have to reconcile your ideas and thoughts with other views and learn different ways of compromising that can help lead to better policies, programmes or other outcomes.  At the same time, scientists and engineers have an advantage, as they have a very structured way of seeing things, often with the ability to breakdown problems and analyze them into actionable items, which allows them to get to solutions more quickly. 


Tell me about your current job and what you like most about it? 

I moved to the US in 2012 to the EU Delegation.  My role as Minister-Counsellor for Science, Technology and Innovation essentially aims to promote and increase the extent of science and technology cooperation between the European Union and the US.  This has been a very rewarding job in many respects.  I especially like that I have come back into direct contact with the scientific community in a way in which I had not had contact since my early years in the Commission.  When you move up-stream in the Commission or I guess in any public policy system you tend to end up talking to policy analysts and counterparts working in ministries in the member states and groups lobbying for interests and you don’t have much contact with the real world of science and those doing research and development.  I was very happy when I came here to DC to have the opportunity to come into contact with researchers in the field in both the US and Europe.  That has been rewarding as I have also been brought into contact with very different disciplines.  This was a bit unexpected because the main part of my role involves significant contact with the U.S. administration and policy circuit here in DC.  This is somewhat analogous to the Brussels circuit but here you learn about a different system and how that system works.  Learning how the US system works has been very rewarding.  However, I would put my finger on coming into contact with the scientists again as being the most rewarding and unexpected aspect of this role, even though it represents only a small portion of my time.  One of the things which has been interesting here and is relevant to those considering careers in the public sector is that, in the US, it seems that there is a lot more mobility between the academic and research sectors and the government and public sector than in Europe.  There is a lot more prestige and importance accorded to high-achieving scientists and many of the top management positions in government here in the US are scientists and technologists who have been drafted from academia or from industry in a way in which you do not see as frequently in Europe.  That is a pity as I believe this is a missed opportunity in Europe. 


What are the main differences between mainland Europe, US and Ireland in terms of science policy and relocating?
The first thing that comes to mind is my recollection of the relatively underdeveloped state of research and science policy in Ireland when I was coming up through the Irish university system as a PhD student in the 1980s.  It was not a sophisticated and strategic area of policy and government then.  However, it has become so over the years.  While I was in Seville in the late 1990s I am happy that I was consulted and provided substantial input to a technology foresight exercise which was the first Irish technology foresight exercise conducted.  This foresight exercise had a very big impact and resulted in the introduction of a step change increase in science funding in Ireland.   I like to claim a little bit of influence in that particular achievement.  The impact of this step change increase completely changed the landscape in science in Ireland going forward from that point onwards.  Resources are continuing to be ramped up in both science and technology, and basic science in Ireland is doing well today.   The science policy and science-funding systems in Ireland however, while maturing rapidly, are still in their infancy compared to other leading European countries.  For example, the science policy system is much more mature and has been established for a long time in countries like France, the Netherlands, Germany and the UK.  In these cases, one gets the sense that there’s a self-confidence about their science systems as their systems have been maturing over many decades.  Those countries know that they’re capable of doing big things whether it’s generating Nobel prizes in science or developing notable technologies like rockets, aeronautics,military technology, etc.  However, in overall global-reputation terms, the US has been the lead in this arena since the Second World War although, I believe they are coming to realize that in some areas of science where they can’t go it alone, the US will need to be more strategic about international cooperation.  As Ireland looks to bring its science and innovation system towards the top of the leader-board in Europe and globally, it is perhaps in a good place to develop and introduce best practice in the combination of domestic and international elements of its approach and notably through the involvement of the Irish diaspora in the latter.


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