Diplomacy – What’s science got to do with it?

A photo of Jana Pavlic and Plamena Markova, EMBL’s Joint Heads of Government and EU Relations. PHOTO: Hugo Neves/EMBL Photolab
Jana Pavlic and Plamena Markova, EMBL’s Joint Heads of Government and EU Relations. PHOTO: EMBL/Hugo Neves

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Interview with EMBL’s Joint Heads of Government and EU Relations

EMBL’s Winter Council meeting takes place this week in Hamburg. Jana Pavlic and Plamena Markova, EMBL’s new Joint Heads of Government and EU Relations, lay out the different ways in which EMBL interacts with countries, and share how their team works behind the scenes to bring – and keep – member states on board.

What does a country gain from being a member of EMBL?

J: For countries joining now – mostly in Central and Eastern Europe and  countries outside Europe – membership means getting closer links to EMBL’s scientific knowledge and expertise, and benefitting from the EMBL model of how research is carried out. This may not be so relevant for the countries that established EMBL in 1974, but it’s a significant gain for countries that have faced the challenge of establishing themselves in the scientific community and building an international network in just the past 20 years. This just wasn’t possible for many of these countries under previous political systems. Linking the communities in these countries to the EMBL community and to the communities that EMBL is already connected to, i.e. linking scientific excellence from new to established members and to EMBL, is of great benefit to the new members.

And what about more established members, how do they benefit?

P: One of the reasons EMBL was created by these countries, which always had a very strong science environment, is that many projects are just not feasible or sustainable on a national level. So even for established countries with well-developed science systems, there is added value in being able to pool resources in an intergovernmental organisation and access facilities and services that would be difficult to establish and sustain at a national level. This is of course in addition to many collaborations that are only initiated through membership.

J: EMBL has also established itself as a training centre.  This is definitely a further benefit that all member states recognise.

Linking scientific excellence from new to established members and to EMBL, is of great benefit to the new members

How does a country decide to become a member state?

P: Countries decide to join EMBL after much deliberation – it’s not a decision made out of the blue, or on a whim! Membership is mandated by the government of the country. So we need to make sure that we’re engaged with the government, and that they know what the value proposition is. At the same time we also engage very much with the scientific community, to see where the bottom-up connections are leading: what are their interests when it comes to research collaborations, what is the direction in which they want to go, how would they like to engage? Ultimately, though, the government makes the final decision, and they have many priorities to align. It’s a very gradual process, which differs from case to case.

J: For me, this is one of the most exciting aspects of our job. On one hand, we need to talk to the ministries, the funding agencies and so on. On the other hand, we also speak all the time with the scientific community in these countries, with the institutes that are most prominent in the life sciences. It’s so exciting to be in contact with both actors. At the end of the day, while the government is the formal partner for everything, membership would be impossible without the support of the scientific community. It’s a very exciting element, getting to interact with both.

P: What’s more, as a rule we involve the scientists from our side, to make sure that they also feel that they can connect to that community and are excited about it.

What happens once a country has decided it wants to become a member of EMBL?

J: This is a very established, formal process. The state’s minister of research sends a formal application letter to the chair of EMBL Council, and then the decision on the accession of this country is put on the agenda of the next council meeting. A representative from the ministry is invited to that meeting, to present the country’s vision for the life sciences, how they engage with the scientific community, the main projects they are working on, their investments in life science infrastructure… They have a lively discussion with our council delegates, and if the majority of EMBL council agrees, EMBL formally invites the country to become a member. After this decision, the country itself still has to go through a national ratification process, either at the level of the government or at the level of the parliament. When this decision is taken, they need to send a formal notification that they have ratified the agreement to the government of Switzerland.

Why Switzerland?

P: Switzerland acts as a treasurer of ratification instruments for many intergovernmental organisations.

J: As one of the hosts of the UN seats, they often take such tasks on board.

Is the process the same for all countries?

P: This is the process for European states. Countries from outside of Europe are only eligible to become associate member states, which involves a slightly different procedure. Countries wishing to become associate members of EMBL need to obtain a unanimous decision of council. This links back to the European core of the organisation, and being able to ensure that the relationship is really mutually beneficial and will have a high impact. After they are unanimously approved, the Director General of EMBL and the corresponding party from the applicant country sign an agreement granting the status of associate member state. There is often no ratification on the national level, but this differs from country to country.

The Different Types of EMBL Membership

Member states

  • European countries
  • Voting rights on EMBL council
  • Contribute to EMBL budget

Prospect member states

  • European countries
  • Observers at EMBL council – no voting rights
  • Do not contribute to EMBL budget
  • Transitional: 3 year ‘trial’ period before becoming member state

Associate member states

  • Countries outside Europe
  • Observers at EMBL council – no voting rights
  • Reduced contribution to EMBL budget
  • Permanent (not transitional)

What are the criteria from EMBL’s side? What is EMBL looking for in a member state?

P: For European countries, we are open to all countries that are listed under the Council of Europe. Incorporating all European countries is a mandate given by the EMBL Council and the EMBL treaty. For the associate member states it’s different. Council has adopted a policy on international cooperation which outlines some basic points as to what really is important when it comes to formally engaging on a state level outside of Europe. The country should have a well-developed life science system and a strong life-science community. We always look for scientific excellence.  Also,  we always look into whether there are already collaborations between our scientists and scientists in that country, which can be furthered through the membership.

Is there a limit to how much EMBL can expand?

P: Geographically, for member states, the limit is Europe. For associate member states, the limit is being able to collaborate in a reasonable way, and for this we have mechanisms in place to allow us to carefully select our partners. We obviously don’t have unlimited capacity with regard to services, training, or collaboration. This is also part of what our team’s main tasks are, to think about what developments would make sense. Membership has to make sense and be beneficial for both sides.

Are there ever any other considerations when you’re looking at countries – things like political situation, human rights issues…?

J: I think if there were a country where we had doubts, where the science was excellent but the political situation was grey and we didn’t know what to do – for example if the member states or the European Union had a particular stance about this country – we would ask Council for guidance. If the situation is very complex we turn to the member states and pose the question to them, like we do for other issues. But so far we’ve never had a case like this.

Membership has to make sense and be beneficial for both sides

What’s the role of member countries in shaping EMBL?

P: Once a country becomes a member state of EMBL, it has the right to send two representatives to the EMBL council and finance committee. These are the bodies where all the important decisions that refer to the budget of the organisation, to the scientific direction, to the main projects, to different governance aspects of the organisation are taken. So this is the main apparatus that makes the organisation go forward.

J: Primarily, formally, countries are involved in decisions at Council level. But then of course there are links between the scientists and between institutes. What we can do from EMBL’s side is to explore these relationships with a view to long-term partnerships. For example, a few years ago we were approached by a group of Hungarian scientists that had an idea of building a new centre of excellence in Hungary. At the time, Hungary as a country was also interested in membership, so we had these two initiatives going hand in hand, and the Hungarian scientists are now about to form a partnership unit of EMBL that will be distributed across Hungary and be financed through EU and national funds.

What’s the role of EMBL’s Government and EU Relations team in these procedures?

J: What we do is basically keep the member states happy, in very simple terms, and make sure that we follow the recommendations of EMBL council. We also engage actively in reaching out to possible new member states. Additionally, the team here is also in charge of the relationship with Brussels, with the European Commission. The EU Framework Programme for Research is our biggest external source of competitive funding. Our aim is not only to be successful in obtaining funds, but in the long term to have a very close relationship with the European Commission that enables us to engage in dialogue at the early stages of policy making.  We also engage with the Commission as part of EIROforum, a consortium of eight major research organisations in Europe. This forms another big part of the team’s work.

P: Another pillar of the office is handling interactions through the partnership programme, which is really highly appreciated by the member states.

What is the EMBL partnership programme?

J: This is when EMBL creates an institutional link to a scientific centre of excellence in a member state, and explores the benefits of collaboration through this mechanism. This has become a very important instrument for EMBL.

P: This programme builds an institutional relationship. It allows a country to either set up a new institute or to re-form an existing one – or a unit within an institute – to model the EMBL operational principles. Our office – helped by other EMBL departments when needed – supports this process at various levels. We provide know-how on setting up training programmes and core facilities, we advise on governance and scientific direction… By engaging with EMBL faculty, we also assist partners with recruitment, and help them set up and conduct external scientific reviews.

Does your team only support these formal relationships?

P: Aside from these institutional relations which are very strong, we also facilitate the creation of new scientific collaborations that are not as formalised as the partnerships. Our office is often asked by researchers to help or advise on engaging with a particular institute that is in a member state, and then put together an agreement that will help to create more links. For example we have an agreement with the NCT (the National Tumour Centre in Heidelberg), which allows us to extend the scope of EMBL research, as it brings this medical perspective that we don’t have in-house. We’re not implementing EMBL’s model – the NCT is a very well-established, well-structured institution – but through this collaboration we can achieve a very complementary relationship which is mutually beneficial.

In these bottom-up collaborations, the impetus for a more formal collaboration rises organically, when a researcher or group of researchers that are already working with an institute see that there is added value somewhere. They might participate together in the EI3POD scheme, jointly apply for funding, or organize joint scientific meetings, for example. We then try to make official collaborations more visible, so that more people get informed of this opportunity on our side and on the side of the member state.

J: When we speak to the ministries, they really appreciate seeing that EMBL is engaged in long-term institutional collaborations; that EMBL, to which they are contributing, is considering how to strategically engage with the communities in their country.


Jana Pavlic and Plamena Markova are Joint Heads of Government and EU Relations – a newly-created team under Director of International Relations Silke Schumacher. The team, which deals with all aspects of membership relations, was created after a number of new member states joined the EMBL family in recent years, as part of the drive for increased interaction between EMBL and its member states.