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Marja Makarow’s path to policy

How international opportunities drew a life sciences researcher into European and Nordic science policy.

Three unexpected experiences shaped Marja Makarow’s career. Today, Professor Makarow is vice president of research at The Academy of Finland (the country’s research council). From 2008 through 2011, she was the first woman Chief Executive of the European Science Foundation (ESF).
In 1981, however, Makarow was building an academic career as a postdoctoral fellow at EMBL in Heidelberg, Germany. What she didn’t expect was an education in scientific culture.
“At EMBL I experienced an international research environment with state-of-the-art infrastructure, a flat hierarchy, and an investigator-driven structure,” says Makarow. “That’s where I got my lifelong understanding of what these things mean for young researchers establishing their careers.”

The bigger picture

Back in Finland, at the Universities of Helsinki and Kuopio, from 1984 through 2003 Makarow researched intracellular trafficking, which produces secreted proteins such as insulin. But serving on Finnish and European research councils starting in 1998 brought more career-changing experiences. “I got into science policy as a member of the Academy of Finland Research Council for Health,” she says. “I started to understand the connection between government priorities, budgets and policy and how that affects researchers. I got interested in the bigger picture.”


Then came the third big professional development. In 2003, Makarow became the University of Helsinki Vice Rector for Research, Doctoral Training and Innovation. This brought her into daily contact with researchers in all areas, from humanities to physics, and she was hooked.
“After a couple of months,” she says, “I realized I was not going back to a strictly research position. I liked serving the scientific community, and I’m still on that road.”
In 2008, the road led to becoming Chief Executive of the ESF, a consortium of European science academies and research councils. At the ESF, Makarow strengthened the global research perspective that she brought back to Finland. Ian Halliday, professor emeritus, University of Edinburgh and 2006–2011 ESF President, says “Marja had a reputation for making things happen. Her ESF accomplishments included improving relationships with European research councils through clearer communications and making the ESF more policy oriented and focused on serving funding agencies.”

Working for a Nordic Science Renaissance

In 2011, Makarow joined the Academy of Finland where her duties include allocating €317 million in 2013 research funding. She fiercely defends basic research.
“There’s no invention that changed the world that didn’t start with fundamental research findings,” she says.

At the same time, she has long promoted technology transfer. Open innovation, with companies offering research incentives to academic scientists in exchange for access to potential products such as drug leads, facilitates fruitful new partnerships, she says. And collaborations are the way forward.
“My personal view is that now is a time for a new Renaissance in Nordic research collaboration,” says Makarow.

To achieve this new era, she helped write “Vilja till forskning?” This 2011 report for the Nordic Council of Ministers calls for greater cooperation, sharing, and mobility of researchers, funding, and resources among the Nordic countries. Makarow wants others to experience the open, global research atmosphere that formed her own career. She believes in diversity, but advocates beyond gender. Science policy should involve people from many disciplines, ages and career stages, particularly young scientists, she says. “These are the researchers and decision makers of tomorrow.”
For people interested in a science policy career like her own, Makarow suggests getting experience and making a full commitment—don’t view it as a backup job.
“If you have a passion for science and a desire to serve the international community, it’s a wonderful career,” she says.


Name: Marja Makarow
Born: 1948, Helsinki
Education: 1979, PhD, Biochemistry, University of Helsinki
Professional: 2003-2007 Vice Rector, University of Helsinki; 2003-2011, Chief Executive, European Science Foundation
Currently: Vice President for Research, Academy of Finland