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Interview: Eric Eliel steps down as Scientific Director of Physics

After seven years, Eric Eliel resigns as scientific director of the Leiden Institute of Physics (LION). On April 18th, LION hosts a farewell party and a week later Eliel will officially hand over his tasks to Jan Aarts. We spoke with him about his term as director, in which among others a new science building emerged and the diversity at the institute noticeably increased. ‘I wanted to make LION the most female-friendly institute in The Netherlands.’

Seven years ago, you exchanged your job as principal investigator in quantum optics for the role of scientific director. How big was this transition?

‘The difference was huge, especially in terms of variety and time pressure. As principal investigator you can now and then put something on the shelf, without affecting many people. Then you kind of live in a safe bubble and you can decide whether you want to join in or not. As an institute director you occasionally get a large variety of things on your plate with a strict deadline. If you’re not on top of that, it will have large consequences. Take for example the arrangement of the new building. You must stay on constant alert, otherwise researchers won’t get the kind of room they require. I’ve spent a lot of time on that for years, and now we have a beautiful measurement hall.

Was the new building also the biggest challenge during your term?

‘The biggest challenges are always with people. We have many special people walking around here, in what they can do and in terms of ambition. I see it as my role to enable them to realize their ambitions as much as possible. Ideally you only need to support them in what they do, for example by helping them write a grant application. But we’re still talking about people, with many strong but also some weak points. When I first started for example, many people were struggling with a feeling that the workload was too high. I immediately sent a few employees on holiday, or have them make a holiday plan for next year. After that, things went noticeably better.

In the end, what are you most proud of?

‘I think I contributed a lot to making the institute more diverse and inclusive. It is my job to take away any obstacles that people encounter from their personal situation. If you have young kids, it can be a challenge to attend conferences. For both men and women. I then look for ways for the institute to help. Extra time at the daycare? Fly-in the grandparents? These costs are peanuts compared to what a research group costs, while we let our scientists flourish to the best of their abilities.

An important aspect of diversity is the ratio men/women. You have proven yourself a champion of gender equality. What was your main contribution to the cause?

‘When I just started as director, the Sectorplan Physics and Chemistry was presented, saying that we could hire five new staff members, of which at least one had to be female. At the time, some considered that unwanted positive discrimination. I realized that it doesn’t work if you have to, and that it does work if you want to. So I turned it around: I don’t have to hire a female staff member, I want to hire as many women as possible. I set it as a goal to make LION the most female-friendly physics institute in The Netherlands. Of course this is not measurable, but it gives you a spot on the horizon. And it’s not even about the events you organize, like a women’s lunch or a day for women in science, but what matters is the message you keep conveying as director. I’ve heard from many people that this gives them the feeling that gender issues are taken seriously by the management, and that they find this reassuring.

After seven years your term as director comes to an end. How are you going to fill in your role as professor from now on?

‘I’m not entirely sure yet. At my age, it is unrealistic to try to start up a research group again. In any case I will be teaching classes next year. And I make myself available to use my set of talents for the university.

Do you have any last-minute advice for your successor?

‘Stay happy. It is a responsible job, and often you don’t have total control over things. Even if you are fully committed to achieving something, sometimes it just doesn’t work out because of all kinds of external factors. In that case don’t blame yourself.’

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