A partnership to boost researchers’ career prospects in Croatia

For several years now, EPFL has been working closely with the Croatian authorities to give young researchers the opportunity to lead research programs in Croatia. We met some of those involved in this pilot project, which is based on expertise developed within EPFL.

The pilot program, aimed at promoting a tenure-track system in Croatia, was officially launched in May 2018. It was set up by EPFL, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), the Croatian Ministry of Science and Education, the Croatian Ministry of Regional Development and the Croatian Science Foundation (CSF). The aim is to boost the career prospects of Croatia’s most promising researchers.

To limit brain drain, the program is based on a tenure-track system, which EPFL has successfully been using since 2000. “Young researchers are awarded assistant-professor status and have a budget of around CHF 1.1 million, a team, equipment and administrative support, so that they can conduct their research independently,” explains Olivier Küttel, Head of International Affairs at EPFL, who has been working on the project since 2013. “After five years, if all goes well, they are guaranteed a permanent position.”

Ongoing collaboration

Several EPFL professors are taking part in the project as mentors, such as Paolo Ricci, head of the theory group at EPFL’s Swiss Plasma Center. Their role is to offer strategic and administrative advice to young researchers, while gaining insight into their research topics.

Ricci himself benefited from EPFL’s tenure-track system. “It may be the best thing that’s ever happened to me during my scientific career. I had an excellent mentor, and taking part in this program was the least I could do to give something back after the great support I received,” he says.

He made his first trip to the University of Zagreb last week to meet his mentee, Kosuke Nomura, along with his team. “Croatia is growing fast in scientific terms. I’ve seen the enthusiasm of these young researchers and their desire to contribute to Croatia’s development.”

Tamara Nikšić (mentor, University of Zagreb), Kosuke Nomura (assistant professor, University of Zagreb), Paolo Ricci (mentor, EPFL) © Kosuke NomuraTamara Nikšić (mentor, University of Zagreb), Kosuke Nomura (assistant professor, University of Zagreb), Paolo Ricci (mentor, EPFL) © Kosuke Nomura

Helping young researchers

Nomura is one of the three talented researchers selected for this project. Originally from Japan, he has close links with Croatia, having held a post-doctoral position at the University of Zagreb from 2015 to 2018. “The research environment was very stimulating, and I really wanted to carry on my work here. I heard about the program and decided to give it a go,” he explains.

When Nomura learned that his application had been successful, he had just moved back to Japan and was a few weeks into a permanent job at the Japan Atomic Energy Agency. There were several factors behind his decision to accept this new challenge: “In Zagreb, I could be independent and form my own working group. That wasn’t possible in Japan. Plus, I love Croatia!”

Nomura packed his bags and moved back to the Croatian capital in May 2019 to start his research project in the field of theoretical nuclear physics, specifically “Exotic Nuclear Structure and Dynamics“. By combining mathematical modelling and advanced scientific computing, his ultimate aim is to develop a universal theoretical framework for describing the structure and dynamics of atomic nuclei.

“Exotic Nuclear Structure and Dynamics” project team: Marko Imbrisak (PhD student), Tamara Nikšić (mentor, University of Zagreb), Kosuke Nomura (assistant professor, University of Zagreb), Paolo Ricci (mentor, EPFL), Konstantinos Karakatsanis (Postdoc, University of Zagreb) © Kosuke Nomura

Bigger ambitions

“This initiative offers key benefits for researchers, such as being able to conduct research independently and being provided with resources and mentoring, but it also has the potential to change the Croatian system which, very often, is overly complicated and limits career opportunities,” adds Küttel. “The project is a template that should be applied Europe-wide. It could be used as a reference for decisions made as part of the Horizon Europe program.”

For Nomura, the project offers much more than a permanent position: “It’s very rewarding. In addition to being able to focus on my research, I’m developing my career through teaching.” Longer term, Nomura hopes to form a group of experts and make Europe more influential in the field of theoretical nuclear physics.

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