When Greek forest geneticist Andreas Drouzas (pictured left) made what he calls "a realistic move" away from research to begin a permanent post at the Ministry of Rural Development and Food in Athens, he viewed it as a one-way trip. "Initially, I wasn’t really thinking of coming back to research," he says. But a research career proved too difficult to leave behind. "If you quit, ... then you really know if you miss your job."

Because his previous research was still current--and because he worked hard to stay close to research--Drouzas was able to do something that many before him couldn't manage: find a way back to academic research. "Of course, a prerequisite is to always keep in touch with research, ... or you won't be able to keep following what's going on," he says. He kept up, and when a position came open in his field at Aristotle University in Thessaloniki, he got the offer, about 4 years after leaving academia.

Drouzas now has to clear the same hurdles as anyone else taking up a first academic position, with the added challenges of sharpening rusty skills and making up for lost time. But he expects his experience at the ministry to work in his favour. The management skills he learned in his government post, and his deeper understanding of policy issues, will, he hopes, make him a better academic researcher than he was before.

First Steps Into Research

Drouzas did a first degree in forestry and the natural environment at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. There, he was exposed to both theoretical and practical aspects of forest management. He became interested in forest genetics and arranged to do a Ph.D., at the same university, on the population genetics of Abies species in Greece. But first he opted for a M.Sc. in applied molecular biology and biotechnology at University College London in order to gain more experience in molecular-biology techniques.

On his return to Greece, Drouzas arranged to spend part of his time at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in Umeå, supported by a Marie Curie Fellowship. The Swedish connection gave him access to resources that weren't available at Thessaloniki. His experience abroad (in the United Kingdom and in Sweden) was beneficial in other ways, too. "You get experience in the way you are doing your job by being exposed to different working environments, by [having] discussions with people on both scientific and nonscientific issues, [and] also by discussing with people from different countries and cultures," he says.

Drouzas obtained his Ph.D. in 2000, then carried on at Aristotle with a postdoc. He studied the genetic diversity of the Greek chestnut-tree population with enzyme markers as part of a multidisciplinary, E.U.-funded project called CASCADE. The project was designed to identify conservation policies for chestnut trees.

From Research to Ministry

"Dealing with research in Greece, getting a permanent position, is very difficult. There are not so many job openings every year," says Drouzas. "There were some family reasons, too, that made me move to Athens, close to my hometown." So when the Hellenic Ministry of Rural Development and Food created a few permanent positions for forest experts at the General Directorate for the Development and Protection of Forests and Natural Environment, he applied. His timing was good; "the previous call for such positions was 8 or 9 years before," he says.

Ever since June 2002, Drouzas has been "dealing with international affairs in the directorate" of Forest Resources Development by representing Greece in European and international discussions on forestry issues. Despite his forest-management background, "it was a big jump," he says. "Bureaucracy and formalities was the part I had to prepare myself for." Drouzas received guidance from colleagues, but because Greece had not been participating in forestry debates for some time, he was on his own when it came to learning the details. He learned about forest regulations and policies, current issues, and the decisions that had been made at previous meetings. "I got familiar with the way they were working, how to deal with issues, to see how can I promote the positions of my country," he says. Just 20 days after he joined the ministry, he was part of a working group discussing an E.U. regulation for the establishment of a European forestry information and communication system (EFICS).

The learning curve was steep. "In some cases, I was feeling uncomfortable when I was not aware of the history of the discussion that was taking place," says Drouzas. But he soon developed the expertise he needed and the ability to fill in the blanks by means of research and other people's contributions. "It was very useful for me to approach it in the same way as in research: gathering, analysing, trouble-checking information." His approach soon generated arguments in support of Greece's positions in these negotiations. Nikolaos Efstathiadis, Drouzas's former director at the ministry, thinks that a scientific background is important in a policy role. "Dealing with international issues of forestry ... requires deep scientific knowledge, linguistic abilities, conversational aptitude"--as well as the ability to think on your feet. "All of these requirements can be easily achieved by an extensive scientific training, as it was proven in the case of Dr. Drouzas."

Missing Research

"It's a very interesting and challenging job, dealing with international forestry policy," says Drouzas. "The rewarding part ... is to see that the positions of your country are being taken into account in international forums, at the European or global level. And also the acknowledgement by some people that you have done a good job" despite the fact that "most people have been there for many years and I was a newcomer, at a young age."

But research kept tugging on his sleeve. He was, he admits, frustrated at times by what he considered excessive bureaucracy in his government job. But the main factor was that "I have always been missing research. I spent many years doing research; it's not something you can forget." His personal situation, too, had changed; whereas once his commitments had carried him to Athens, now he was drawn back to Thessaloniki. He applied for a lectureship at the School of Biology at Aristotle University, got the job, and should start his new position within the year. Lectureships aren't permanent, but they can become permanent following a promotion to assistant professor and a further positive evaluation.

The Rules

"It was critical that I kept in touch with research," he says. His job at the ministry offered only few interactions with scientists, but he managed to maintain his existing professional relationships: "I always had contacts with my friends and colleagues from research." Frequent conversations with former colleagues helped him keep track of developments in his field. He continued to go to conferences in his spare time. "I was still dealing with research; I was trying to be up-to-date with what was going on and tried to still be thinking in a research way," he says. Importantly, he managed to keep his publication record from developing a large hole. "Some papers were published after I left for the ministry," he says.

There can be little doubt, however, that scientists can grow stale while working away from the bench. How long a scientist can remain viable "depends on the work that you have done before leaving research," Drouzas says. "If it was quite advanced, then it gives you extra time to stay on the market." Drouzas's research was still relevant, he says, and so was his knowledge of molecular techniques. "What has advanced is the way of doing the work, essentially the instrumentation. The work has been facilitated, but if you have the knowledge, it's easier to get familiar with the new techniques."

Not the First

"It is very difficult to come back to research; this is something that Andreas will be finding too," says Aristotelis Papageorgiou, an assistant professor in forest population genetics at Democritus University of Thrace and a former colleague of Drouzas at the ministry. Papageorgiou, too, went back to research after a gap, which in his case lasted 7 years. Four years into his new position, he still finds it challenging. "The literature and the methodology have advanced. There are new people who know better than we do. They are established labs; they don't know us anymore," he says. Papageorgiou recommends that people in Drouzas's situation create new partnerships with established labs and use existing international relationships in the beginning. It will also be important for Drouzas "to choose a field he's good at and try to focus on it," as well as "to try and find a way to use his large experience he got outside of academia," Papageorgiou says.

Despite the challenges, these two scientists prove that in some fields at least, provided one is aware of the rules, the road out of academia doesn’t have to be one-way. And the time away from research may provide opportunities to gain valuable skills. "My personal opinion," says Efstathiadis, "is that interchanging positions makes the scientist understand the real world and be really useful to the society."

Drouzas agrees. "Until going to the ministry, I was only exposed to how research works," he says. Now, "I have the knowledge of the management part of a job." Thanks to the policy awareness he gained at the ministry, Drouzas now plans to work on research topics that really matter on the ground. "I learned how to read and handle the policy documents and to see the policy implications of what is being done in research," he says. Similarly, Papageorgiou finds that his science-policy experience is a great source of examples and inspiration when it comes to teaching. "It helped me a lot to make strategies in education and research," he says.

Still, Drouzas faces a daunting challenge. Drouzas, says Papageorgiou, "goes back in a very high, very demanding position, where he has to perform very successfully." But Papageorgiou thinks that all the ingredients for success--good timing, good contacts, good resources, and good communication skills--are in place for Drouzas. "I believe he will succeed at 100%, because he is a person that goes for it."

Elisabeth Pain is contributing editor for South and West Europe .

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Elisabeth Pain is contributing editor for Europe.