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No struggle, no progress

Small and based entirely on voluntary assistance, the European Platform of Women Scientists faces formidable odds in Brussels’ lobbying world. Inga Vesper looks at how its members fight to make their voices heard.

Four years ago the European Commission rang the death knell for the first pan-European lobby group for women in science, the European Platform of Women Scientists.

The group, which was set up under Framework 6, had not achieved enough impact to warrant the €500,000 it got annually from DG research, said the Commission, and would have to close down. EPWS members fought long and hard to keep the group running, but on 18 September 2009 it was announced that the group’s office would be shut and its staff let go. An estimated 12,000 women scientists working in Europe’s universities and companies had lost direct representation in Brussels.

But for Claudine Hermann, the EPWS’s vice-president, the closure was a call to arms. Within days she and her colleagues rallied around Maren Jochimsen, the EPWS Brussels office director, to salvage as much as they could of the operation. The platform’s executive committee urged members to stay on board, and to volunteer to keep the platform alive. Today, the EPWS is still going strong and continues to be a well-heard voice in Brussels, even though its physical base has disappeared.

“Basically, we shifted from being a well-funded organisation related to the European Commission to being just a plain ordinary association,” says Hermann, a retired physics professor at the Ecole Polytechnique in Paris. “There are many things that we were able to do when we were rich that we cannot do anymore. But we manage, because we have so many individuals who are willing to give their time. We still exist, because we are needed.”

To survive, the platform has had to profoundly change its ways. Board meetings and discussion groups used to be hosted by a member state, but now the platform’s members communicate mainly by email. The group’s web presence is maintained by a voluntary contributor, and most of the group’s lobbying activities happen through informal connections, rather than formal meetings.

Earlier this year, for example, the EPWS hosted a debate on women in science in the European Parliament, which was organised by a Lithuanian MEP known to an EPWS member. The platform is also working much more closely with its member organisations—national organisations for women in science—to contribute to national lobbying efforts on European policies. Lastly, the group is relying more on publishing position papers and opinions to make its voice heard, than on direct lobbying.

“Fortunately we have a small but very active executive committee, which controls the platform’s daily actions,” explains Patricia Lamperts, the EPWS treasurer. “In fact, most of the daily work is done by three people from the executive committee, and all three are pure volunteers. So it’s because of those people that EPWS can manage to survive.”

The group is open to both individual and association members, and receives a modest income from membership fees. At the moment, the EPWS has about 100 individual and organisational members on board, which represent scientists in more than 40 countries.

This wide spread of nationalities is one of the group’s biggest strengths, says Hermann, as it allows it to collect expertise that is much sought after by governments. Since 2011, the EPWS has produced an annual report for the French research ministry, for example, to help the country improve its support for women in science based on similar initiatives in other countries.

It is through such measures that the EPWS hopes to leave its mark on Horizon 2020. The group has already written one position paper, and is working on another, pending budget discussions this month. Members are also lobbying their national organisations to make clear statements on supporting women in science and to evaluate the role that gender plays in Horizon 2020 funding.

Through such actions the EPWS hopes to prevent misunderstandings about women in science, such as the European Commission’s now-infamous Science: It’s a girl thing! campaign, which was meant to help teachers attract girls into science, but featured a video of women in skimpy lab coats gyrating for a leering scientist. The EPWS was among several angry organisations that complained to the Commission, resulting in the withdrawal of the video from the Commission website.

But it is in moments like these that Hermann misses having a budget to support the EPWS’s work and give the organisation scope for more active involvement. Following the publication of the video, all the EPWS could do was write a scorching letter to research commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, a woman and teacher herself. But the commissioner never wrote back.

“Sometimes I am worried that our opinion is not seen as important,” says Hermann. “But we continue to express it anyway.”

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