What Is a Soil Scientist Doing in NATO?


So here I am, a soil scientist working for NATO, a military and political organisation that deals with many issues related to security, armaments, defence planning, and so on. You may be wondering what I am doing here, and that would be a completely legitimate question. Not everyone may be aware of this, but NATO also deals with civil cooperation in two specific fields: Civil Emergency Planning and Scientific Research. The latter dates back to 1958, when NATO decided to foster co-operation among scientists in the alliance partner countries and to establish the NATO Science Programme. The science programme is managed by a small group of “former” scientists, of which I am one, and this is the story of how I came to be here.

I grew up in a small seaside village in Northern Tuscany, in a magnificent region of pine forests and mountains called the Apuan Alps. This was the environment in which my intellectual interests developed: I was always fascinated by nature, be it the seasonal cycles in vegetation or the living organisms and their interactions with soil and water. Later on in school, I discovered chemistry and was equally intrigued with processes such as the changes that occur in metal and organic substances when exposed to heat. It was therefore natural to me that I should decide to study science, more specifically industrial chemistry in a technical college not far from where I lived in Carrara, Tuscany.

Cells, embryos, and many interesting people

I was always looking for something new, but I was mainly seeking an independent life outside the fold of my patriarchal Italian family. I became aware of an opportunity to work as a biological technician in a biophysics research laboratory at the National Research Council of Italy in Pisa. I started preparing histological samples for experiments on analysis of the optical nerve of an arthropod ( Limulus) to light. For several years, I worked on a small team of physicists and biologists. The first computing machines were appearing, and we were pioneering the exciting field of biocybernetics.

However, I was not completely happy–to me this field was too remote from the study of natural phenomena. During this time, I met a friend who told me he was about to start studying agricultural sciences at postgraduate level. I liked his idea very much and decided to join him in Pisa. Five years later, I got my doctorate with my dissertation on the nitrogen cycle in rice fields.

Still looking for new challenges, I applied for a fellowship from the Committee on Agricultural Sciences of the Italian Research Council and was awarded a grant that allowed me to spend a year at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge in the United States. This postdoc experience was extraordinary: I worked with colleagues from all over the world. I became aware of the variety of opportunities available for scientists and the variety of means and resources for research and science.

On a more personal level, I learned to work closely with other people, to have critical discussions about our work, and to be more open towards other cultures. My research activity consisted of collecting soil samples from different areas of the Mississippi River and investigating the behavior of nitrogen compounds in the special conditions of flooded soils.

It was then that I had my first real experiences of travelling around the world, attending international meetings, and developing interesting contacts with colleagues in Europe and the United States. This made me realise that Pisa, the city in which I had worked, was too limited for me long term and that I wanted to continue my job at an international level.

Key skills: organisation and communication

So I swapped my scientist’s hat for that of a diplomat. I was no longer doing experiments, no longer writing scientific papers or making presentations at scientific meetings. Instead, I was writing reports on the scientific and technological situations in specific regions and countries, promoting collaboration between Italian and foreign scientists, and supporting and advising Italian scientists spending a period abroad. In my opinion, the key skills for this job are organisational and communication. You also have to be as flexible and adaptable as possible, and being outgoing certainly helps!

Working as a scientific attaché for the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs meant fantastic opportunities to work and live abroad. I was first sent to the Italian Embassy in Brussels where I was responsible for Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. I naturally became acquainted with programmes in the European Union and also had the opportunity to witness the establishment of the 1st Framework Programme. My second posting was in Ottawa, Canada. A completely different picture: a large country, few people, long winters but, most of all, an opportunity to meet highly qualified scientists. It was also time for me to expand my horizons. Italy is well known for its cultural and artistic heritage and background, more so than for its science. So I also became cultural as well as scientific attaché at the Italian Embassy and organized cultural events in addition to fulfilling my traditional scientific role.

After spending 8 years abroad, embassy officials are supposed to go back to their home countries (8 years being the maximum time one is allowed). I returned to Pisa to begin another period in my professional life.

I took up a position at the National Research Council, this time as a manager dealing with international scientific collaboration and external relations with the local political and administrative bodies. I was also involved in the promotion and sharing of knowledge and experiences among the National Research Council, universities, and public institutions. During this period, I also organised tutorial activities for the benefit of students and scientists from poorer countries. My previous experience at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs was essential for this purpose. This brings us to where I am now. After 6 years in Pisa, I again felt I had to move on. I became aware of a vacancy in the NATO Science Programme. As my CV fit the job description very well, I applied and was offered the position.

I am currently working as the programme director within the Public Diplomacy Division of NATO. More specifically, my tasks consist of managing a panel of experts who evaluate the proposals for projects such as the Advanced Study Institute, Advanced Research Workshops, and Collaborative Linkage Grants. On a practical level, I, together with my assistant, collect the grant applications. We make a first selection and assign the applications selected to the referees. We organise three meetings of the advisory panel a year. Afterwards, we award and administer the grants according to the recommendations of the panel. More recently, I also manage a new funding scheme called the Reintegration Grant.

Being part of NATO, I also have other tasks, such as establishing contacts with scientists and policymakers in NATO partner countries and in countries of the Mediterranean region for special initiatives. Frequently, I travel abroad and give presentations at universities on our science programme or I participate in international symposia and give speeches on civil cooperation in NATO.

Being a scientist at NATO may sometimes seem strange. However, we are always treated with great respect and consideration. Finally, I would like to finish with this quote, which to me illustrates well what we are trying to achieve through NATO’s scientific programme.

The most useful contribution that scientists can make to the abolition of war has nothing to do with technology. The international community of scientists may help to abolish war by setting an example to the world of practical cooperation extending across barriers of nationality, language, and culture.

Freeman Dyson, Imagined Worlds (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997)

International Development Work – Challenges and Rewards

Network Your Way Into Work: Finding the Needle in a Haystack