Behind the scenes of the Marie Curie Alumni Association: an interview with Alessandra Luchetti, Head of Unit of DG EAC.C3 of the European Commission

The Marie Curie Actions (MCA) were launched in 1996 to offer financial support to research activities and researcher mobility. What were the European Commission's expectations at that time?

The real beginning, in the form of fellowships, was in the 1980s. It was later, in 1996, that we gave the actions the name ‘Marie Curie’. The initial objective was to support research and development programmes by making it easier for researchers to move between countries within the EU and later the programme was expanded to include Associated Countries and also Third Countries, effectively the whole world. We also saw this as an opportunity to contribute to the growth of a knowledge society – mainly scientific knowledge – and of course support for research automatically leads to social and economic benefits for society at large.

By facilitating researchers' freedom of mobility, we hoped to create a critical mass of researchers in the EU who would be in a better position to exchange knowledge, both within Europe and with researchers elsewhere. The goal was to make the EU attractive for the best researchers mainly from the EU but also, as things progressed, from the world, by helping finance their mobility, their training, making a career in science a less complicated option, and by putting in place a selection process based on excellence. To put it briefly, the aim is to increase the EU's appeal to the best researchers and to counteract the phenomenon of brain-drain.

 

Since their start in 1996, Marie Curie Actions have benefited more than 65 000 researchers. Did the European Commission expect such success?

The EC certainly hoped and planned for these actions to be successful, but I think that at the time we did not really think they would become quite so attractive and successful as they have become.

 

How do Marie Curie Actions influence the careers of researchers? Is there a long-term impact?

Marie Curie researchers have a very high employment rate, above 97%, and have worked or are working in Europe (most of them) many in North America but also in the rest of the world. Furthermore it is, I think, well known that being awarded a Marie Curie fellowship is recognised widely as a sign of scientific excellence. A fellowship definitely helps someone's research career to take off, so yes there certainly is a long-term impact. One of the reasons for this high employment rate are the transferable skills that fellows acquire.

 

Has the initiative generated "community spirit" among the researchers who have benefited, as we can see for example among the students who have benefited from the Erasmus programme?

I would answer yes to that, but I would also add that the creation of a community spirit is one of the goals of the MCAA. MC fellows are spread out over a very large geographical area and are a very mobile professional group. Creating a community spirit is therefore no easy task. It very much depends on a feeling of ownership and a willingness to be proactive and take the initiative – something we hope to achieve with the creation of the association, run by its own members and assisted by a professional team.

 

How important are networks and especially transnational networks to Marie Curie fellows?

Transnational networks in general are very important in a multitude of ways, such as transnational cooperation and understanding, knowledge sharing, the potential for creativity through communication and cooperation and common interests etc. I would say that in the research field – where most ground-breaking discoveries are usually made by international teams – the chance to network, cooperate and exchange results with highly qualified experts in your field is even more valuable.

 

What are the main objectives of the MCAA?

To extend the impact of Marie Curie Actions still further, networking between Marie Curie fellows (current and past) will be stepped up through a range of new services designed especially for alumni. We also hope to maintain permanent contact with Marie Curie researchers in order to evaluate the impact of Marie Curie Actions on their career development. We plan to do this through:

  • Promotion of networking, cooperation and mutual understanding among alumni from different countries, economic sectors and scientific disciplines;
  • An organisation which will serve as a forum for debate, enable alumni to promote Marie Curie Actions and accelerate their own and others' careers;
  • Fostering global relationships by alumni who serve as ambassadors of the Marie Curie Actions for the wider research and innovation community, drawing on their experience of international and inter-sectoral mobility.

 

What actions are foreseen for implementation by the MCAA?

We are providing for assistance to the MCAA through a contract with a service provider. Of course there are several actions foreseen in the contract, such as creation, expansion and maintenance of a dedicated website and the services it provides, as well as more general actions: the organisation of general assemblies, elections, production of newsletters, micro-financing, assistance in finding jobs or establishing residence in a new country and more. However we are also ensuring the MCAA has a lot of creative freedom, so much depends on the needs and wishes of the alumni themselves. Maybe they will request the creation of chapters on the basis of thematic interests, or a national MCAA presence, discussion forums etc. – we will have to wait and see.

 

Which particular benefits will the MCAA website offer Marie Curie fellows in terms of networking, documentation, employment and funds?

It will offer a single point of access to information about calls for proposals and for participation in research programmes, certain types of financing, job offers, networking opportunities and more general information (e.g. news about research, opportunities for publication). As the MCAA develops and grows, more services and opportunities will be added. I think it is crucial to understand that this organisation will be self-governed and managed by its own members. Its organisation and the way it will develop depends significantly on the needs and decisions of its members – it is a very democratic type of management.

 

 

Does the European Commission expect the MCAA to contribute to the Europe 2020 strategy objectives on research and innovation?

The creation of such an organisation certainly opens up this opportunity. And we are already planning to consult a pool of excellent scientists (such as our fellows) on a whole range of issues. It is a rather Socratic method – to consult the beneficiaries of an activity in order to improve it. And in my view there is probably nobody better suited to provide such advice on publicly funded (or co-funded) research programmes.

 

Do you have a last word for the MCAA members?

Join, keep your profile updated, be proactive; this is your organisation and we count on you to make it a success.

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