My passion to serve the research community: an interview with Academia Europaea’s new President, Professor Marja Makarow#


President of Academia Europaea, Professor Marja Makarow
In her first interview since becoming President of Academia Europaea, Professor Marja Makarow tells us about her leadership roles and sets out some of her priorities for Academia Europaea.

About Professor Marja Makarow MAE#

Professor Marja Makarow is a Molecular Cell Biologist. She has been Director of Biocenter Finland, Vice-President of the Finnish Research Council - Academy of Finland, Vice-Rector of the University of Helsinki and Chief Executive of the European Science Foundation. Professor Makarow advised the EU Commissioner for Research and Innovation in the European Research Area Board, and the Finnish Government in the Council for Research and Innovation Policy. She is a Board member of the European Innovation Council and former member of the Governing Board of the European Institute for Innovation and Technology. She has served as President of the European Molecular Biology Conference and delegate of Finland in the council of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, and she established the Institute for Molecular Medicine Finland. Professor Makarow was elected to the Academia Europaea in 2009. Her term as AE President commenced on 1st January 2022.






The interview#

Tell us a little about your background and the key highlights from your career so far that have led you to your new role as Academia Europaea’s President.

“I am a national of Finland and a European, having been schooled in French, German and Finnish, and having lived and worked for 11 years in The Netherlands, Germany and France.

After completing a PhD at the University of Helsinki and a postdoc at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg, I became Group Leader and then Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at my alma mater. With my postdocs and PhD candidates, we discovered molecular mechanisms that guide the folding of nascent proteins in the eukaryotic cell and transport them to intra-cellular organelles and the exterior of the cell.

As Vice-President for Research, Researcher Training and Innovation, the focus on my own research expanded into a passion to serve the research community at large. I became inspired by all the disciplines at my university, and learnt to appreciate their distinct research cultures and outcomes.

As a consequence, I decided to make a career shift to positions where I could serve researchers of all disciplines, at both a national and European level. I moved to Strasbourg to serve as Chief Executive of the European Science Foundation, which was funded by research funding and performing organisations of 30 countries to support cross-border collaboration in Europe. On my return to Finland, I became Vice-President of the Finnish Research Council (the Academy of Finland), and then Director of Biocenter Finland, an umbrella organisation for the country’s five biocentres.

Over the years, I have contributed to the establishment, governance, management and evaluation of many research universities. I have given advice on science policy to the EU Commissioner for Research and Innovation, the Nordic Council of Ministers and the Finnish Government. I have undertaken assessments of national research and innovation systems and of research funding organisations. I have also evaluated research proposals – for example, as panel chair of the ERC Starting Grants programme.”



As the new President of Academia Europaea, what are your priorities and ambitions for the Academy over the next few years?

“Two of my priorities are the issue of diversity and the development of the next generation of researchers. Based on what I’ve learnt from the assessment of research organisations and research and innovations systems in the Widening Countries of Europe, talent is everywhere, and in order for it to bloom, it needs modern research environments.

Another form of diversity concerns research collaboration across the major disciplines. This has inherent value, as new ideas tend to emerge at the borders of disciplines. For example, researchers who provide technological solutions in the natural, life and engineering sciences need to work as equal peers with scholars in the social sciences and humanities. They are experts in how individuals behave and how societies work, and new solutions are only viable when adopted by citizens and society.

We still have to work on our mindset, to acknowledge and appreciate research cultures and outcomes in those disciplines that are not our own. Our university system is the second oldest viable institution after the Catholic Church, and only renews itself slowly. Multi-disciplinary research is still difficult to embrace at an institutional level, due to the traditional mono-disciplinary faculty/department structure.

Supporting the next generation of researchers must remain a priority for Academia Europaea. Therefore, our collaboration with the Young Academy of Europe will continue to be nurtured, and common interests will be identified which will hopefully result in concrete joint actions.

One more priority I wish to focus on is the translation of research findings into benefits for society. Research in Europe is financed mostly with public money, and therefore the findings are a public good. I believe it is the research community’s social responsibility to give back to society. The impact of research findings can be defined by their beneficial effect on society, culture, the economy, public policy, services, health, the environment and quality of life. Therefore, all scientific and scholarly disciplines have an impact on society.

The Technology Academy Finland awards a global one million euro Millennium Technology Prize for research-based, ground-breaking innovations that improve the quality of peoples’ lives. As Chair, I have witnessed the fantastic interplay between fundamental and applicational research, as practised by the awardees. The winners are fundamental researchers, who have discovered that their research findings can be translated into innovations with global impact. None of them have abandoned their basic research after commercialising their innovations, but instead have continued to develop it in parallel with the practical applications that catalyse new questions for fundamental research.

Finally, I wish to strengthen and consolidate the Academy’s relationships with the most relevant bodies at the European Commission. The Trustees of the Academia Europaea Board and a number of MAEs are current and former members of the Group of Chief Scientific Advisors, the European Research Council, the European Institute for Innovation and Technology and the European Innovation Council. Therefore, we are in an excellent position to connect our members to science and innovation policy in the European Union.

These priorities have a common denominator; they cannot be realised without the Principal Investigator and their publicly-funded research. The balance in Horizon Europe is tilted towards programmes and innovation, and therefore long-term investment in Principal Investigator-driven research at national levels is as vital as ever.”


Professor Marja Makarow (far right) attending a ‘Making sense of science for policy’ SAPEA Working Group meeting in Berlin, September 2018
Professor Marja Makarow (far right) attending a ‘Making sense of science for policy’ SAPEA Working Group meeting in Berlin, September 2018


Academia Europaea has played a key role in SAPEA (Science Advice for Policy by European Academies) over the past five years, and you were part of the SAPEA Making Sense of Science for Policy Working Group. Why do you feel science advice of this kind so important?

“Science advice is one form of the research community’s impact on society. Climate change and the COVID pandemic are examples of how important it is for policymakers to take evidence-informed decisions. And the evidence naturally comes from the latest knowledge that the research community has produced.

The Academy’s community, with its network of Regional Knowledge Hubs, has the authority, credibility and pan-European breadth to deliver independent and unbiased collective expertise and advice for policymakers. Academia Europaea, together with SAPEA and the Young Academies, is indeed excellently placed to continue to play a fundamental role in delivering science advice at a European level.

In Finland, the Prime Minister’s Office asked the Finnish Academy of Science and Letters to design a science advice mechanism to enhance the quality of political decision-making. This has been accomplished, and now requests from Ministries and other public bodies are pouring in. I would like to encourage Academia Europaea to support the development of national advice mechanisms, when requested by national academies.”

Professor Pearl Dyskstra MAE and Professor Marja Makarow at the SAPEA symposium on science advice (Helsinki) Photo: Tomi Setälä / SAPEA
Professor Pearl Dyskstra MAE and Professor Marja Makarow at the SAPEA symposium on science advice (Helsinki) Photo: Tomi Setälä / SAPEA


You’ve been a champion for women in STEM and spoken about the impact of persistent gender stereotypes. What are the notable changes you have seen during your career in terms of gender equality and what are your hopes for the next generation of female scientists?

“Over recent years, women’s rights have experienced a severe backlash in different parts of the world, but let us focus here on the European academic community.

According to the European Commission’s She Figures 2021 statistics, the percentage of female doctoral graduates in the EU-28 countries* was 48%. In 2015, about 40% of academic staff were female and the share of full female professors was 26%. The 2021 figures are almost the same. The low number of full professors explains why only 24% of the heads of higher education institutions are women and their representation on university boards is much smaller.

This results in the underrepresentation of women as heads of research funding agencies and bodies that advise national governments on science policy and the funding of universities and R&D activities. For me, gender and other forms of diversity such as discipline, career age and cultural background are not the final aim, but serve as a tool to increase collective intelligence. And sharing power means sharing responsibility.

In 2021, the percentage of female members of Academia Europaea was 17.8%. Of the 23 Sections, four had a female chair. Consequently, of the 11 members of the Board of Trustees, only two were women.

The progress of women’s representation in all societal sectors is not one of continuous progress year-on-year. Instead, change advances much more slowly, manifested as generational steps forward. This is showcased by the Young Academy of Europe. The share of female members is 41.5%, while four of its six chairs are female.

My hope for the future is that national decision-makers will follow the example of the European Commission and take measures to support the closing of persisting gender gaps. One specific case is the low number of women in STEM professions and research. This means that women are underrepresented in the most rapidly growing sector of the job market. Women are almost invisible in the innovation and patenting arenas, with a few shining exceptions such as recent winners of global innovation prizes.

The reasons behind girls avoiding STEM subjects are difficult to address. The 2018 PISA study, which covers 80 million youngsters in the OECD countries, evidenced that technical professions interest the vast majority of boys, whereas girls largely aim at human-centred professions. Surprisingly, the higher the equality index of the country, the stronger the division.

My final comment concerns the future of Europe. The rise of wellbeing and living standards has depended and will continue to depend on research and innovation. Future scientific discoveries are in the hands of the next generation of researchers, and the working conditions that enable their success. It is unacceptable that a tenth of our early-career researchers work under precarious contracts. Sustainable research career paths are urgently needed, requiring the revisiting of research assessment and grant evaluation practices and criteria, as well as institutional reforms in many universities.”

*27 member states plus the UK


Professor Marja Makarow, Dr Gemma Modinos, Chair of the Young Academy of Europe, and Professor Sierd Cloetingh, Past President of Academia Europaea at Academia Europaea’s annual conference in Barcelona, October 2021
Professor Marja Makarow, Dr Gemma Modinos, Chair of the Young Academy of Europe, and Professor Sierd Cloetingh, Past President of Academia Europaea at Academia Europaea’s annual conference in Barcelona, October 2021

More from Professor Makarow#

At Academia Europaea’s annual conference in October 2021, Professor Makarow introduced herself to the membership and highlighted her priorities for the academy. You can watch her talk here.

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Interview by Juliet Davies, Academia Europaea Cardiff Knowledge Hub. Posted 13th January 2022. For further information please contact AECardiffHub@cardiff.ac.uk.

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