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Careers: Science in an international context

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  • Careers: Science in an international context

    Natarajan Ishwaran, director of the UNESCO Ecology and Earth Sciences division, says that the first UNESCO director-general, the distinguished zoologist Julian Huxley, fought hard to put science on UNESCO's agenda. Today, UNESCO spends one-seventh of its $610 million budget on science and employs about 200 scientists. About half of them are based at the Paris headquarters; the rest work in one of five regional and 51 field offices around the world. The job of these scientists is to co-ordinate international efforts between researchers and the public, the media, and international governments. "We are brokers," says Ishwaran, "between science and everything else."

    UNESCO is keen to recruit young scientists, and those hoping to swap research for a career in intergovernmental work will find some opportunities there - provided they are not looking for too much job security.

    Finding your way in

    UNESCO offers different entry points to people who are already involved in international research and can contribute their own ideas and contacts. Because these jobs are truly international, one of the most important credentials is the ability to speak several of the six United Nations languages. With 200 to 500 applicants for every job, competition is comparable to what it is for good faculty science jobs - which isn't surprising considering the tax-free pay, 30 days of annual leave, expenses to travel home, and for dependent children extra pay and educational grants all the way through university. The nature of the work is attractive too. "Intergovernmental work is seductive to young scientists," says Patricio Bernal, an assistant director-general at UNESCO, because it has the potential to change things for the better, on a global scale.

    An important remit of UNESCO's natural sciences programme is promoting environmental sustainability, including nature conservation, ocean monitoring, renewable energy, and water resources. In addition to projects in the other basic and engineering sciences, UNESCO also is involved in HIV research, science education, and women in science issues. UNESCO also has a social and human sciences programme that tackles bioethics, democracy, security, and human rights.

    A big downside of working at UNESCO, however, is that jobs there are seldom permanent; contracts usually run from 6 months to 2 years. For young scientists looking for a stint away from the lab, it's a great opportunity: They can develop excellent international contacts and gain a better understanding of how their science can be applied to society. But scientists seeking long-term security can probably find better opportunities elsewhere. UNESCO staff may get their contracts renewed while their projects are ongoing, but when the project ends they have to apply for a new post. These days, even senior staff at UNESCO are not guaranteed jobs for life. Staff who would have been given permanent employment in the past now work on 2-year contracts that get renewed upon positive assessment. "The organisation is in downsizing mode," says Ishwaran.

    The contingent nature of UNESCO employment isn't a bad thing, Bernal says, because scientists coming in fresh from research are most effective. Bernal encourages scientists seeking an international policy career to wait until they are well established in science and come in at the top level, as he did. "You burn out if you work here too long," he says. "It is such a heavy bureaucracy, and things can be so slow when you are dealing with governments." Early-career scientists working under Bernal are told not to see UNESCO as a lifetime employer but, rather, as a place for a short career interruption. "I am strongly opposed to them staying more than 3 or 4 years," he says. "These are brilliant minds. They will sacrifice their scientific careers if they are cut off too long from the natural source of new ideas."

    Still, it is possible to forge a career within UNESCO; Ishwaran, for example, has been working there for 20 years.

    UNESCO entry opportunities at a glance

    * Internships: short-term, unpaid posts. Apply to UNESCO directly, stating which programme you want to work on.

    * Young Professionals: 1-year training programme, awarded annually to a dozen young nationals of under-represented countries. Apply to your National Commission for UNESCO.

    * Professional posts: 1- or 2-year renewable contracts, widely advertised in scientific journals and on the UNESCO Web site

    * Associate Experts: 1-year, once-renewable postings to headquarters or a field office. Apply through national governments.

    Check UNESCO's employment Web site for current opportunities.

  • #2
    A climate scientist at UNESCO

    Albert Fischer, a Swiss-American oceanographer who speaks French and English and is learning Spanish, has been working for 2 years at the UNESCO Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) in Paris, where he co-ordinates a group of academic scientists charged with deploying a global ocean-observation system to help predict the climate. Fischer recently presented work to a meeting of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. "It was very exciting," says Fischer. "I was out of my realm. Here in Paris, I work alongside other oceanographers. There, I was presenting to ministers of state."

    Fischer gained a Ph.D. in physical oceanography from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in the United States in 2001. He went looking for work at the IOC while he was finishing a postdoc on climate models in Paris. "I always had an interest in the intersection of science and policy," he says. "I chose oceanography as a student because I wanted to do something that felt relevant. But as a research scientist, you have to be such a specialist to make any progress." His generalist tendencies drew him toward the policy side.

    Fischer is on an annually renewed junior-professional contract. "I was lucky," he says, "because someone was leaving at that time" - 2 years ago - "and I applied for their post. Openings like this are rare." Just 55 natural scientists work at the UNESCO head office and 44 others at offices around the world. At his interview, Fischer impressed Bernal - who, in addition to being an assistant director-general at UNESCO is also executive secretary of the IOC and, hence, Fischer's boss. "He asked us some tough questions," says Bernal, "and he had his eyes wide open, knowing the limitations of this work."

    In his new job, Fischer is often frustrated by the slow pace at which things move. "The biggest challenge is the UNESCO administration itself," he says. "Sometimes it feels like we're sliding backward. You need to have faith that we'll make progress fast enough to react to climate change." Despite the slow pace, he prefers intergovernmental work to academic research. "It's not a very stable job, and I know Bernal thinks I've made the leap from research too early. But I really enjoy having this broad overview." Should his contract not be renewed at UNESCO, Fischer can seek another job co-ordinating international oceanography projects outside government.

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    • #3
      A UNESCO hydrogeologist

      It was the mandate of the organisation - building peace between nations - that attracted Annukka Lipponen of Finland to UNESCO in the first place. Lipponen speaks three languages fluently - English, Finnish, and Swedish - and she is learning Russian and French. She plans to stay at UNESCO.

      As a Finn, Lipponen qualified for the Young Professionals Programme, a route into UNESCO restricted to nationals from under-represented countries. Her long-term career prospects may also be better, because countries are entitled to a certain number of posts according to their financial contribution to UNESCO.

      Before applying to UNESCO in 2002, Lipponen gained an M.Sc. in geology from the University of Helsinki. She then spent 3 years at the Finnish Environment Institute working on groundwater research while doing a Ph.D. with the University of Helsinki. She finished the Ph.D. out of hours after starting work at UNESCO.

      An M.Sc. is enough to win a Young Professional post at UNESCO, with a 9-month probationary period and a chance to secure a 2-year, renewable contract, but a Ph.D. is highly desirable for those seeking a longer-term stay, because UNESCO staff with long-term career prospects are encouraged to apply for other jobs within the organisation and to move to a field office after a few years. "A Ph.D. is needed for many jobs within UNESCO, and it's definitely an asset" for jobs in natural sciences, says Lipponen.

      Today, Lipponen is charged with strengthening the capacity to manage water resources in the arid and semiarid areas of the world. She works with a group that is developing indicators for the status of groundwater resources, including their quality, quantity, and sustainability of use. She loves interacting with some of the world's best scientists. "You have to be culturally sensitive, though," she says. In Iran, for example, women must wear headscarves and would never shake hands with a man. "It really helps if you follow what's happening in world politics."

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      • #4
        An environmental economist

        Another common route into UNESCO is an unpaid internship; it doesn't guarantee a job, but it offers opportunities to make contacts and gain expertise, which increases chances of employment. French-Algerian environmental economist Meriem Bouamrane took this route.

        Bouamrane, who speaks French and English, spent a 1-month internship at UNESCO gathering data for her master's dissertation. She was working on UNESCO's Man and the Biosphere Programme, which aims to align economic and social development with nature conservation. The internship inspired Bouamrane to do economic research in the field; she gained a Ph.D. from the International Centre for Research in Agroforestry in Sumatra in 1996. "Meriem made an effort to articulate her own academic career around Man and Biosphere questions," says Ishwaran, now her boss.

        After receiving her Ph.D., Bouamrane took a UNESCO Associate Expert post in Dakar, Senegal, to manage the Man and Biosphere Programme in West Africa. Her job was supported by the French government for the first 2 years, after which she secured funding for an extra year from the Global Environment Facility, an international environmental fund, to use West Africa as a demonstration project for the participation of local communities in the management of biosphere reserves.

        When that project ended, Bouamrane applied for other UNESCO posts. Today, after 6 years with UNESCO, she works at the Paris headquarters, but she is keen to return to a field office. "It is really valuable to gain experience in the field and at headquarters," she says. "The challenges are very different."

        Bouamrane advises young scientists who want to develop a career at UNESCO to gain a solid background - and a strong network - in their field of expertise. "You have to know the best people in your field so you can build on those networks," she says. An open mind is also key. "UNESCO considers itself a laboratory of ideas, so you have to be able to anticipate new concepts" and get diverse groups of people to develop a shared vision, she says.

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        • #5
          Career development: Science in an international and humanitarian context

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          • #6

            Ahcène Bounceur

            France, October 12, 2007 -- There was a time when Ahcène Bounceur played three different musical instruments, wrote his own tunes, drew, designed three-dimensional computer graphics, and played sports. No more: Bounceur, a 30-year-old mathematician from Algeria who is also a member of Algeria's Berber cultural minority, renounced such trivial pursuits when he came to France as a master's graduate in operations research -a discipline that blends mathematics and statistics with computer science to pursue optimal solutions to complex problems - seeking better opportunities. "During [the past] 5 years, all I've been doing was working, reading, and programming," Bounceur says.

            One senses that for Bounceur, hard work is a self-conscious strategy, a way of staying focussed on essential challenges instead of being sidetracked by less important issues, such as perceived slights that may have resulted from his national and ethnic heritage. According to Emmanuel Simeu, one of Bounceur's two supervisors at the Techniques of Informatics and Microelectronics for Computer Architecture (TIMA) laboratory in Grenoble, France, Bounceur's is a good approach. For young scientists belonging to an ethnic minority in France, "everything is possible," Simeu writes in an e-mail. "But you just need to work very hard at each step of your career." Whatever the reason, Bounceur reports few negative experiences.

            Bounceur is Berber, a population indigenous to North Africa west of the Nile valley. Whereas most Algerians are Berber in origin, the majority speak Arabic and self-identify as Arabs. Bounceur had to deal with what felt at the time like some of the consequences of being an ethnic minority when politics stalled his studies while he was still at high school. In Algeria, although Berber is now recognised as a national language like Arabic, it is not yet official and cannot be used in schools, for example. So in 1994 -the final year of his high school studies -the Berber community staged a boycott. "We were asked not to go to school [in order] to put pressure on the state so that we could study the Berber language," Bounceur says.

            The protest ultimately failed - no changes were made in the curriculum - but Bounceur used his time well. During his year off, he studied for a computer-programming diploma at a private high school. Then, back at his public high school, he finished his A-levels and entered a 5-year ingénieur degree (equivalent to a master's degree) at the University of Bejaia in 1997. And recently, the Algerian government has begun allowing Berber to be taught in schools.

            Upon graduating in 2002, Bounceur left Algeria for France. The French government was giving visas more easily than before, so Bounceur saw it as a "now or never" opportunity, as he puts it. Once there, it wasn't difficult for him to find a place to study. There are so many opportunities in France, Bounceur says, that if you are motivated "you can go wherever you want to go." He joined the École Nationale Supérieure d’Informatique et de Mathématiques Appliquées de Grenoble to do a Diplôme d'Etudes Approfondies (equivalent to another master's degree) in mathematics and computer science with a major in operations research and optimisation.

            Bounceur feared that finding a lab for his master's research project would prove trickier as a result of the normal consequences of being an immigrant. "When you're new here, you don't know many places," he says. When Emmanuel Simeu and Salvador Mir of the TIMA laboratory in Grenoble -a joint department of the Joseph Fourier University, Grenoble Institute of Technology, and the French national research agency, CNRS - advertised a project he liked, he was the first to apply. He had the appropriate credentials. But he stood out from his peers thanks to his "excellent motivation and presentation of himself," Mir, his second supervisor, writes in an e-mail. He got the position.

            Bounceur worked to develop new tools to be used in designing the “systems-on-chips” commonly found in telecommunication devices. His aim was to ensure that all the various microelectronic circuits function as planned once the chips are produced. This involved inventing mathematical and statistical techniques that can be used to predict how the electronics components will behave in the chip, and evaluating the robustness of existing tests. Bounceur then wrote the code to incorporate the new instructions into the software used to design the chips. The work required Bounceur to juggle mathematics, statistics, operations research, computer science, and electronics.

            Meanwhile, Bounceur was trying to balance his professional challenges with starting his new life in France. "The first year is the most critical in France. It isn't even courage [you need]; it's faith," Bounceur says. One major problem was making ends meet. Although he was from a privileged background in Algeria, he had decided to gain his independence once in France. For the first 6 months, he worked as a night watchman in his university hall while studying during the day.

            Bounceur also had to adapt to a new cultural context, with the added difficulty that the two countries share a sensitive past that makes prejudices and misunderstandings common. With time, one learns to understand the local customs and mindset, he says. "There are some gestures a French person can do that are bad form" in Algeria. "If one understands that this is a question of a different education," it's no big deal. Reciprocally, he learned how local people might interpret and react to his own behaviour. "The first year, you need to be very much supported," as changing culture is taxing, Bounceur says.

            As a scientist with a different cultural identity, Bounceur also felt compelled to prove himself more in the laboratory. Determined to stay on for a Ph.D. after his master's project, he slept only a couple of hours a day so that he could do extra work and make a good impression.

            In 2003, with money from a European grant, Mir and Simeu offered Bounceur the opportunity to turn his master's project into a doctorate. Again, during his Ph.D., Bounceur made sure to work as hard as possible. In addition to his research, he taught more than 170 hours' worth of computer programming classes to master's students and later put the material he produced into a book. He also turned his hand to mentoring, co-supervising three master's students the last 2 years of his Ph.D.

            "His hard work has allowed him to develop new tools and methodologies that are beyond the capabilities of most Ph.D. students," Mir says. When he finished his doctorate in 2006, Bounceur won third place in the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Test Technology Technical Council competition. Companies were showing interest in the new tools, so Bounceur decided to stay at TIMA for a 1-year postdoc to investigate the commercial potential of his research. Bounceur's contract has now been renewed as an attaché temporaire d’enseignement et de recherche, which allows him to continue his research part time while teaching.

            Bounceur has worked very hard, and French politics and bureaucracy have sometimes made his life a little more difficult than it might have been. Yet he feels his cultural identity has not caused any real hardships or put any of his professional goals out of reach. Mir, a Spanish national, concurs with Bounceur's view that foreigners face few additional challenges in developing a research career in France. All that counts are their abilities, he says. Young scientists "should look at the fact that they belong to an ethnic minority as a cultural fact, but with no impact [on] their future, which just depends on their own skills."

            Yet Cameroon-born Simeu believes that there are some obvious disadvantages for foreigners. One big issue is that, as in other sectors, "university and research lab employers generally prefer French-citizen candidates, perhaps because their recruitment is administratively more easy," he says. He also believes that the need for visas to travel to most countries and other administrative proceedings all constitute additional barriers on Bounceur's career path.

            For his part, Bounceur is determined to remain positive - and he has good reason to. He is aware of the tensions between Algerian and French people outside of the privileged world of research departments, but he has decided not to let them affect him. "Sometimes, there are some behaviours outside of work, where you pass next to someone, and they don't say 'hello.' You have to take this as a characteristic of the person themselves" rather than falling into any cultural trap. "Maybe there are some problems with job positions, or negative views about Arab people, or foreigners who behave as if they think that France is a racist country," Bounceur says. But, he says, "we have to be an example, and not judge or generalise."

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