International relations and their role in research at EMBL

Plamena Markova, Head of International Relations at EMBL, shares some insight into her role and how politics goes hand in hand with enabling scientific research.

Plamena Markova. Photo: EMBL

Could you tell me a little bit about yourself and your career?

I joined EMBL as an international relations officer in 2011. I’m originally from Bulgaria and came to Germany after studying and working in Greece, the Netherlands and a few other countries along the way. Being an intergovernmental organisation means that EMBL brings together many different cultures, perspectives, and expertise, so my previous experiences have been really valuable for my time at EMBL.

My background and education are in international relations and international law rather than science, so joining EMBL was quite a change for me. It was exciting and humbling. Despite not having a scientific background, I felt at home very fast. I realized that we are all striving for excellence in our respective fields and we want to work collaboratively. For me, it was interesting to learn what a synchrotron is and I think that for the scientists it was interesting to see how their work can be translated into the language of politics, diplomacy and international relations.  

I am lucky that EMBL, and consequently my work, is constantly evolving and growing. In the past years, more member states joined EMBL and our institutional network expanded. My role developed alongside this and in 2020 I became Head of International Relations in 2020.

What does the role of Head of International Relations at EMBL involve?

I work very closely with our Director General, Professor Edith Heard. My main role is to offer advice and expertise in the field of member states and international relations. International Relations is about building bridges and enabling collaboration between different stakeholders. It is the intersection of politics, law, diplomacy, governance and economics. For all of this to work, it is very important for me to help develop relationships build on trust, openness, and exchange of information. I try to be aware of everything that is happening across EMBL, because you never know what type of information a member state would consider valuable and helpful. The portfolio I handle covers several main ‘pillars’ of work. This includes EMBL member state relations, which involves maintaining and developing relations and engagement with EMBL’s 27 member states, and other international partners. IR also includes relations with the EU and the European Commission in particular; EMBL has a memorandum of understanding with the European Commission which means we come together to discuss the future of European science, advise, exchange good practice and share opinions and expertise. 

Another important part of my role is to manage and build close relations and networks in the context of the EMBL Partnerships Program. This is something I’ve been involved with since I first joined EMBL and it has been fantastic to see how much the Partnerships have developed over the years. The Partnership Programme works very well, attracting excellent scientists from all over the world and enriching the national and regional research environment. 

Finally, something else I am involved in is the interaction with intergovernmental organisations that are similar to EMBL. Via the EIROforum (European Intergovernmental Research Organisation forum), we meet with the other seven major European research performing organisations. We discuss the future of science and operations and we try to make sure that our work and organisations are serving our communities. 

What do you enjoy most about your job?

I like the constant brainstorming process with people from all different walks of life and cultures. It’s very rewarding to see how we complement one another and work together to find solutions and ideas to benefit the member states and our EMBL partners. The people are what makes EMBL so special and I’m lucky that I get to work with so many of them. 

Could you give me a brief outline of the new EMBL Programme 2022-2026, and how the Nordic EMBL Partnership can support EMBL here?

The new programme is called Molecules to Ecosystems. It was conceived by our Director General and was unanimously endorsed by our member states in November 2020. The programme aims to go beyond the lab and understand life in its natural context. EMBL will offer the mechanistic understanding of molecular biology and will build as many bridges as possible to other disciplines and other member states to bring all this knowledge together. The partnerships will be critical to this process and we want to use the programme to work together in a more intense and more collaborative and thematically relevant way. This year are working to get the approvals needed for the financial framework.

The Nordic EMBL Partnership has proven that it can take the concept of EMBL and implement it nationally with great success, and also that you can do life science research at a fast pace. Usually, it takes years to see concrete applications of discovery-driven research but in the case of the Nordic EMBL Partnership, and our other partnerships, we see something developing so fast. The partnerships have this incredible ability to empower young talent, as EMBL does, and then multiply it. Emmanuelle Charpentier and her research and achievements are of course a great example of this. 

Going forward, we want to make sure that all the partnerships are brought closer together and benefit from one another’s expertise and people in a way that has not happened before. The Nordic EMBL Partnership has been very powerful and it brings a complementarity in molecular medicine that EMBL could not have pursued on its own. It provides a more translational aspect of research and builds on the strengths of the four Nordic countries in a way that benefits the region and the larger European research environment. 

The Nordic EMBL Partnership Agreement is due to be renewed in 2023, what do you hope for the Nordic EMBL Partnership in the next Agreement period?

The first renewal in 2013 was a very important moment as Denmark joined the network and DANDRITE was established. This added a new perspective and new expertise to the Partnership and showed how the Nordic EMBL Partnership could continue to grow and evolve.  

Going forward, I would like to see even more connections between the nodes and with EMBL in terms of exchanges, shared projects and themes. I think it’s time that we capitalise more on the potential for collaboration and, in doing so, help to attract and train even more excellent people. The clinical and translational side of the Nordic EMBL Partnership is positive for EMBL; it reaches other disciplines and brings more complementary expertise for the whole EMBL ecosystem. I would also like to see the Partnership propagating EMBL more in the national system and helping more people to connect to EMBL. I think we also have a lot of potential when it comes to attracting competitive funding.  Whether we speak about national grants or the new Horizon Europe Programme, there is an alignment of priorities and scientific strengths, which could provide some great opportunities for us.  

We want to see EMBL opening a new era for life science research – one that is highly collaborative, ambitious, societally relevant and can deliver impact for both human and planetary health. We can only do this hand in hand with our partners and Member States, and I am convinced that the Nordic EMBL Partnership will play an important role in helping build bridges and delivering groundbreaking scientific discoveries.