It has been an unusual year all over the world. As the ESS project progresses into the fourth quarter of 2020, we talk to Chair of the ESS Council, Beatrix Vierkorn-Rudolph, about heading up the ESS Council during a global pandemic, advancing science for a better world, and advice she would offer young women choosing to pursue a career in the sciences.
Part 3: Insights & Inspiration
Large projects bring both challenges and opportunities. For people like yourself who have been working on such big projects before, what insights and experience have you gained to help you in your role?
I think I belong to that group who always tells the scientists, be clear on what you would like to do and how much may be needed in terms of work and money and people because you should not underestimate this effort, or make things simpler just so politicians can say yes to it. Then, management is also something which is a challenge in these large projects. You need people who have managerial skills – to run very big projects or build complex facilities, and you also need people who have the experience in that research area, and it is not easy to find people who can do both. Very good and experienced scientists and ,on the other side, experienced managers.
Is this kind of competence hard to find? How can this skillset be encouraged?
Well, under the ESFRI project (European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures), there is the recommendation that you should train people so that they not only have experience in their scientific area, but can also obtain managerial training.
Does this include the leadership of science as well?
Yes, leadership, in many cases in the scientific areas means that you are a good scientist. That is necessary but it is not enough in many cases, and especially if you are the Director General of a large facility!
In the context of leadership, what else do you see as the knowledge requirements for leadership positions in the Research Infrastructure arena?
Well, you need an understanding of science, of course. If you take me, for example, I am not a neutron researcher, but I have studied chemistry and have worked for many years in science management in the German Ministry of Education and Research. You need to have an understanding of science and research, but you also need to be able to convince people that they should do something together; to be able to inform politicians about the business case, what it is you would like to do, etc. Another area is public outreach which is much more necessary in the contemporary landscape than in former years.
Why do you feel public outreach is more necessary now?
I think it was easier 20 years ago if you would like to construct something like ESS. You needed to convince some politicians and then off it went. But nowadays, you also have to convince the public about the whole construction, and this can take a long time, especially for a large facility. Often, you had to convince the public that the construction of a facility is not a problem for the communities living around such a facility, and that these are issues that present-day scientists have to do a lot more than to just convince people that you had a really good idea. Nowadays, people seem to be distrustful of whether scientist are telling the full story.
How much of an influence is the general public on political agendas?
The public around where the facility is being built are certainly influential towards the politicians and you have to sell the idea that this is something that is good for the inhabitants. In the case of ESS, Lund will benefit from having such a facility in the area; it will attract people coming from abroad; something that is good for the community.
In the timeline of such a Project, from the start of building up until first science, there will be a lot of effort needed to convince and influence people. How much does that change once a facility is open for scientists to come to do their experiments?
I think it is much easier to convince people about the benefits research facilities provide when you can show evidence and results. If you can do scientific research and show results, and this especially in the area of biomedical or energy research, this will make it easier to convince people that the large investment is paying off in the form of scientific results and innovation, and that we can get these results only at that facility.
The problem is that for a long time now, we have had to tell people that there will be excellent research possible at the very end. If you build something which only takes two years to construct then it will be easier, but we started in 2014 and we had to go until 2025 when we are open for researchers to come to ESS. That is a long time to sustain an interest in such a facility.
Now, let us learn a little more about you! Can you tell me something that people most often just assume about you?
Well, I think people seem to believe that I can chair something like the ESS Council seeing as I have been asked to do that, and also that I have a possibility to bring together people in such a committee and get them to work together!
As head of the ESS Council, and considering your long history and experience, once could call you a role model! Do you have any advice for young women considering a career in science?
First of all, do not hesitate to also think about a career in natural sciences and engineering sciences and not only in the softer sciences. If you are at the start with your career, do not be shy to give talks or be involved in discussions – do not shy away from these opportunities. Even if you feel I cannot do it, just go into it from the very beginning.
Be open to trying smaller things like chairing a committee. This is an area where women may too often say, I cannot do that, I am not able to do that… I think if you are pursuing a career in the sciences, you should simply go and do these activities. Men also have to learn these things but they are often more self-confident than women!