AlumniWatch: From UN Research to EU Policy

For our latest blog, we asked Dr. Daniel Vertesy to share his thoughts on our PhD programme and how it shaped his career. Daniel speaks of his new life working for an EU research centre, the challenges of changing systems, and the importance of staying dynamic.

For many, it is just as surprising to hear that the UN has a University as finding out that the EU has an in-house scientific research centre. Just like the UNU’s research and training institutes located around the world, the various institutes of the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) are spread across Europe and deal with a broad range of topics, from nuclear safety to photovoltaics, from deforestation to innovation. At arm’s length from the Brussels machinery, the JRC can be an exciting place for post-docs to get first-hand experience of the interaction between science and policy making at international level.

An Embraer 145 jet, made in BrazilWhat’s the point of my research? Who will eventually read what I write? For what kind of research is there public demand? These questions are not unheard of among PhD candidates. At UNU-MERIT, I had the opportunity to work on a research topic of great interest to me (the aerospace industry in emerging economies) and found myself in an environment that supported digging deep into the subject and learning a multitude of methodologies from excellent professors. In other words, it offered a fine entry into the world of academia. But it is difficult to navigate in this world without venturing into the neighbouring world of policy making – which is why working in think tanks linked to international organizations can be an exciting learning experience following a PhD.

At the lake, where science meets policy
I have always seen myself living in a large city, a metropolis, full of opportunities to entertain my cultural curiosity. When I left my native Budapest (population: nearly 2 million) to follow UNU-MERIT’s Innovation and Development PhD programme in Maastricht (population: about 120,000), I was sure the small-town life would be a temporary state. After all, a place where everything is within biking distance (including Belgium and Germany) is ideal for reading, computing and writing – that is, for all one needs to study and write a dissertation.

I would never have thought that I would replace Maastricht for somewhere like Ispra (population: 5000). In this small town beside Lago Maggiore, in a picturesque area of lakes and mountains in northern Italy, about an hour’s drive from Milan, one would expect to find a tranquil holiday location. Despite a major in European studies (and even some teaching experience), I hadn’t known until recently that Ispra was home to the third largest site of the European Commission outside Brussels and Luxembourg. This wooded area is home to a handful of institutes from the Joint Research Centre (JRC), as well as the Commission’s in-house science service.

Especially in Ispra, social sciences take up just a small slice of JRC activities, which are dominated by the “real thing”: nuclear research, experimentation with solar cells, vehicle emission, earthquake resistance of building structures, to name but a few. Those in the innovation business are probably more familiar with the work of the Seville-based JRC institute, the IPTS; but those who know the history of the EU’s Innovation Union and Regional Innovation Scoreboards (and follow the work of Hugo Hollanders of MERIT) may also know that a frequent partner in these projects has been the Ispra-based Institute for the Protection and Safety of the Citizen (IPSC), which provided support to the development of the composite indicators.

JRC Ispra, ItalyIn fact, the team of Andrea Saltelli at the Unit of Econometrics and Applied Statistics of the IPSC (yet another part of the institutional maze) has accumulated expertise in the development and statistical assessment of composite indicators. Colleagues in the unit have, together with the OECD, published an authoritative handbook on composite indicators and regularly provide sensitivity auditing to all kinds of composite indicators, including the European Regional Competitiveness Index, Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, the WWW Foundation’s Web Index, and INSEAD-WIPO’s Global Innovation Index (which also featured contributions from Hugo Hollanders).

Composite indicators are interesting tools: from the user’s side, policy makers love them for the simple way they address multi-faceted phenomena. From the producer’s side, building these indicators offers a good overview of where our world stands today in light of statistical evidence on a number of related topics. They also offer a proving ground to better understand the methodologies on robustness and sensitivity analyses.

In the past two years, in various teams, I had the opportunity to conduct a number of feasibility studies related to measuring the progress on the realization of the European Research Area, measuring excellence in scientific and technological research, the size of the knowledge-economy in Europe and the pace of structural change towards it, or measuring the research performance of university systems of European regions.

Changing flags
It is tempting to compare the commonalities and differences in life in a UN and in an EU institute. However, my experience is biased. First, because my living conditions are very different: at UNU-MERIT I was enjoying many of the freedoms (and limitations) of an extended student life, now I am enjoying the benefits (and limitations) of the world of work. I also did not get to experience UN bureaucracy in the same way as I do experience EU bureaucracy, thanks to the help of all on the “third floor” in Maastricht. What I can nevertheless highlight, are the differences in perspective and in language.

With professors and PhD fellows from around the world, with research topics addressing the problems of developing countries and emerging economies, UNU-MERIT had a genuinely global scope. (With its global research interactions JRC may be an exception, but many in the EU system sometimes need to be reminded that the world is even larger and more diverse than its Member States and their closer neighbourhood).

All the readings, seminars, summer schools (and the rigorous supervisory remarks – I can never be thankful enough to Eddy Szirmai) during my years at MERIT ensured that everyone doing research on innovation spoke a common scientific language. Stepping out of this community and talking to policy makers or scientists and engineers trained in different fields, basic concepts like “innovation” or “structural change” are not understood in the same way anymore. It often requires additional efforts to translate the “lingua franca” to the audience. All the more refreshing it is then to come across in various meetings former colleagues and professors of the innovation network!

Because, in the end, one of the most important takeaways from Maastricht was being considered part of the global innovation and development scientific community. Alongside my day-to-day work, it is always encouraging to get a chance to contribute to research projects of Jorge Niosi, Franco Malerba, Keun Lee or Sören Eriksson that have something in common with my PhD project on innovation system dynamics, catch-up and emerging aerospace industries. Another message I took from the many outstanding faculty members of MERIT was to stay dynamic: never stop learning new research methods, venturing into new fields and meeting new problems – innovation, in the end, is always rooted in trying out new combinations.

by Dr. Daniel Vertesy, Affiliated Researcher and former PhD Fellow, UNU-MERIT. Images: Embraer / I.Guevara; JRC / EU; WIPO/INSEAD.