Meeting one of the first Marie Curie Fellows – an interview with Conor O’Carroll

Brief Timeline

1982-1985: Marie Curie PhD Fellow

1990-1994: Research scientist at the Institute for Transuranium Elements, European Commission.

1995-1998: Senior Administrator, European Commission. Managed the peer review of Marie Curie Training and Mobility of Researchers Grants.

Since 2001: Research Director, Irish Universities Association.

Conor O'Carroll

1. You were a Marie Curie PhD Fellow. How would you describe your experience in terms of work and networking?

It was a real challenge to go abroad and work in a completely different environment. I was in the JRC Research Centre in Ispra and these types of centres are quite different from the university. By the way I had already been in the Italian university of Pavia so was fairly fluent in Italian, so I was used to the way of life. I was able to pursue a PhD on a topic (Nuclear Fusion) that would not have been possible in Ireland. It was a great opportunity to work in an international setting and get on with people of many different nationalities.


2. During your Fellowship, did you ever think about the potential for creating a network of European excellence worldwide?

Over the period of the Fellowship, I recognised the potential of all the Fellows to create a network. Here was a situation where a group of researchers are together for 2-3 years and will then move on to another position. We did talk about this among the Fellows and many of us have maintained long term contact. However I think to be really effective one needs a structure like the Alumni Association.


3. What do you think of how the Marie Curie Actions (MCAs) have evolved?

Fundamentally there is no change in that the Fellowships support the career development of researchers at all stages. That being said, the schemes have evolved to take into account European policy developments that improve the prospects for researchers. For example, the introduction of the European Industry Doctorate in 2012 has recognised the specific need to give researchers more opportunities to carry out their research in the private sector. This in turn leads to greater employment opportunities.

In the past there was a fortress Europe attitude reflected in the fact that mobility was allowed only within Europe. The global nature of research has been well recognised and this has led to the now international nature of the Marie Curie Fellowships. In my opinion, the introduction of the outgoing fellowships has been a real success. It facilitates researchers going to world class organisations outside of Europe but with close links to a European organisation to which they return. This most certainly has helped to reduce brain drain. Another really positive effect is that similar schemes have sprung up in many national schemes. This leads me to another really positive development; the COFUND scheme that allows national funding schemes to leverage Marie Curie funds as long as they focus on the career development of the fellows and maintain international openness in peer review and recruitment. The consequence here is that the COFUND Marie Curie scheme has acted as a catalyst in changing national policy.


4. You have been the Research Director of the Irish Universities Association since 2001. How are you preparing Irish universities for preparation in Horizon 2020?

Last year I led the development of an action plan for the universities on how to access Horizon 2020 funding (“Horizon 2020: Sustaining Excellence in University Research and Innovation”). Ireland has a strong track record of involvement in the Framework Programmes and in particular the Marie Curie Actions. However we are well aware that with the reduction in national investments across Europe there will be far greater competition for Horizon 2020 funds. We are looking at new opportunities in Horizon 2020 through, for example, increasing the participation of the Humanities and Social Science and also strengthening collaboration with industry.


5. How is collaboration between the Irish Universities Association and the National Contact Points (NPCs) organised?

The Irish Universities Association has run the NCP office for the Marie Curie Actions since 2001 when I established the Research Office in the IUA. This means that we are an integral part of the national support system. By the way, there has been a radical change in the national approach for Horizon 2020. National Contact Points are now European Advisors. This is not a semantic difference but reflects the interrelated nature of the components of H2020. Each European Advisor, while focusing on a specific area, should have a good grounding in all of the Horizon 2020 funding streams.

The IUA as a support service works with academia and industry alike. One of the consequences of this approach has been to foster closer collaboration between academia and industry.


6. How does the Irish Universities Association work with EURAXESS?

The IUA hosts the EURAXESS office for Ireland working with researchers in academia and industry. We are currently in a FP7 project led by Spain (TOP II) to improve EURAXESS services across Europe and provide training for the service centre staff. We have developed a new interface to the EURAXESS portal in Ireland specifically for businesses in order to attract greater private sector participation.

I am also a delegate to the Steering Group on Human Resources and Mobility (SGHRM). The SGHRM has delegated from all of the Member States, Associated and Candidate countries. It focuses on leading policy developments on researcher career development. I am currently the Chair of the Steering Group.

One of the key activities is to run the fast track visa scheme in collaboration with the Government departments responsible for Enterprise and Immigration.


7. You managed the peer review of Marie Curie Training and Mobility of Researchers (TMR) Grants Programme for the financing of researchers in science throughout Europe (between 1995 and 1998). You wrote in the Irish Times that “the Commission needs a large pool of researchers who are willing to give their time to review proposals.” How do you think the peer review process will evolve under Horizon 2020?

I think it is important to recognise that the peer review process for the Framework Programmes is a highly effective and respected process. Having worked with successful and unsuccessful researchers, I would not be aware of any significant problems. However in areas of low success rates there is a real challenge in providing meaningful feedback. When a proposal with a score of 93% is below the threshold of say 94%, the comments of the reviewers will of course be very positive, and it is difficult for applicants to understand why they were not funded.

It is laudable that the Commission has a very open system for potential reviewers to make themselves available. I think it will be important to have greater verification of reviewers as it is difficult to select purely from a CV. Perhaps endorsements from scientific societies and and similar bodies will help.

We are encouraging researchers in the public and private sector to register as experts for Horizon 2020. I would urge Marie Curie Fellows to do the same. It is a great opportunity to be part of the peer review process and understand how European projects are funded. It is also a great opportunity to network with researchers in similar disciplines and perhaps to form future consortia!


8. Do you have any tips for researchers who would like to apply for a fellowship under the Horizon 2020 programme? On which aspects should they focus to be successful?

I do have an approach that many may find bizarre as I recommend that applicants start at the end rather than the beginning!  The evaluation is about Excellence, Implementation and Impact. Prospective fellows often get caught up in the first part and focus on the project and their track record. However Marie Curie Fellowships are not about research, they support the career development of the researcher. Therefore I believe that it is far better to start with focusing on the impact of the fellowship. Unfortunately many applicants underestimate the importance of this section. Yet it is here where they can show how the Fellowship will facilitate their career development, the core of Marie Curie funding.

Remember that this is what the reviewers will be looking for; there are many excellent researchers and research projects. Successful fellows are those that can show how the Marie Curie Fellowship will enhance their career.


9. To you, the Scientific Visa implemented as a European Directive in 2005 is in itself an effective method for attracting researchers to Europe. Ireland has been operating the Scientific Visa for non-EU researchers since 2007 and you have always supported it. Over the last six years, 1 720 researchers have come to Ireland under this scheme. What would you like to see happen to further improve researcher mobility in Ireland and in Europe?

Directives are the hard end of European policy implementation. Despite many countries signing up, there are still problems for non EU researchers entering some states as the procedures are complex and lengthy. We have found that 24% of the international researchers in Ireland would not have come if the fast track visa were not in place!  Making entry conditions easier really does work. We do have an issue in Ireland for international researchers travelling to Europe for short visits and conferences as there can be problems in getting visas. I think that countries across Europe should better recognise  that immigration of non EU researchers brings real added value to their economy and society. A real commitment to implementing the Scientific Visa would be really beneficial.


10. You chaired the Career Programme for ESOF 2012 in Dublin. What did you learn from this on the latest career development trends?

There are still many challenges for researchers despite all of the advances that have been made.

Gender remains an issue and Europe is losing a highly talented cohort of women through the use of evaluation and recruitment methods that do not recognise career breaks.

Increasing the number of researchers has made it far more challenging for them to get a job.

There are far greater opportunities for international mobility. However it has become clear that mobility can have some serious drawbacks in terms of career development. The new concept of virtual mobility is gaining traction by policy makers and funding agencies

There is now far greater recognition that the PhD should be a lot more than a pure academic apprenticeship. Doctoral candidates need opportunities through placements and structured training to prepare them better for employment in many different professions. However much needs to be done to have similar professional development opportunities in place for postdoctoral researchers.

I am looking forward to seeing the latest trends at ESOF 2014 in Copenhagen this June. I would encourage Marie Curie Fellows to attend as these are great events.


11. Since the launch of the Marie Curie Alumni Association web-portal in summer 2013, have you consulted it? What remarks or suggestions do you have for the Association?

Yes, I do use the portal on a regular basis.

There are over 50,000 Marie Curie Alumni worldwide and there is a real opportunity to draw on that wealth of experience. All of them have moved abroad and understand the difficulties of working in a very different environment.

Back in 1983 when I was a MC PhD Fellow in the JRC Ispra Italy, we set up a Fellows Association in order to share practical information, give ourselves a stronger voice and support new Fellows. We now have the EURAXESS network across Europe, which provides excellent practical information. However I believe that the need to mentor new fellows still exists. This is where the Association can play a key role. I for one would be willing to act as a mentor for Fellows coming to Ireland, as I am sure many others would in their own country.

Being a Marie Curie Fellow should be seen as a badge of honour; difficult to obtain and proud to hold!


12. What in your eyes is the future for the profession of ‘researcher’ in Europe?

Twenty years ago a PhD graduate could expect to see this qualification as the first step of a career in research. Remember that numbers doing PhDs were far lower than now and there were more job opportunities. The major increases in research efforts across Europe follows the Lisbon Agenda and the 3% of GDP on R&D has had a perverse effect. It has certainly led to greater national research activity, and as a consequence has a far greater number of PhDs and postdoctoral researchers. However the number of jobs available in the academic and public research sector has not increased.

A report by the UK Royal Society showed that less than 5% of PhD graduates become academic researchers. The traditional system of training PhDs at university is a form of academic apprenticeship and the expectation of the student is to become an academic themselves.

The approach of the European Research Area policy has recognised this issue and the new focus on Innovative Doctoral Training and Professional Development of Researchers. This provides a real solution for the burgeoning numbers of PhD graduates.

I think that aspiring researchers will have to think carefully about their future prospects. They need to recognize early on that they have a multiplicity of career options in the public and private sector. They should recognize that their talents can be used in many different areas. Being a researcher requires single mindedness, dedication and being able to work well with others. They have the ability to analyse and solve highly complex problems using evidence.

Europe has a highly talented pool of researchers and it will be important that in the coming years they have every opportunity to use their skills for the benefit of society and the economy. 

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