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Scientific communicator or communicating scientist?

Iris Rona

Popularizing science is his passion and his profession: The new Head of ITER Communication, Michel Claessens. (Click to view larger version...)
Popularizing science is his passion and his profession: The new Head of ITER Communication, Michel Claessens.
A "scientist who turned out badly" is how he likes to define himself, because despite his scientific background, Michel Claessens, ITER's new Head of Communication, chose a career in which he could talk about science rather than apply it.

In 1986, Michel, who is Belgian, obtained a PhD in physical chemistry at the University of Brussels. But in parallel to his activities as a scientific researcher, he also started to write as a freelance scientific journalist. And sure enough, during job tests for a big international company, the outcome—which showed equal competence and interest in science and literature—was somewhat of an enigma to the examiners. "I have been writing stories ever since I was 10 and I am really interested in popularizing science," says Michel, "so the result came as no surprise to me."

The perfect opportunity to combine both skills presented itself in the early 1990s: the European Commission was looking for people with scientific background and at the same time experience in communication. Michel was hired in 1994 and joined the Directorate-General (DG) of Research where he was responsible for a wide range of activities such as media relations, information activities, editorial and publication policy and the organization of external events. He also initiated the European Commission magazine on research, RTD Info (later renamed research*eu). For the last three years, Michel was the Acting Head of the Communication Unit of DG Research.

After more than 16 years in institutional communication however, the opportunity to become ITER's new Head of Communication was a challenge Michel could not resist. "The complexity of the ITER Project with its scientific, political and intercultural dimension, really appealed to me—not to mention its ultimate objective," says Michel. "And telling the world, but also the local population, what we are doing here at Cadarache and why we are doing it is a unique opportunity for a science communicator like me."

Michel has moved to Manosque where his wife and two of his children will join him this summer. Meanwhile, he hopes to find a club where he can play his favourite sport, badminton, and also looks forward to discovering some of the countless beautiful spots in the region as well as typical "cuisine Provençale."

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