The time, the project, and the covid-19 – PART II

I want to share few notes based on my experience as a fellow so far, that could perhaps be useful to some colleagues that have already started their MSCA global fellowship, or are about to start one.

It generally takes time to make all the steps needed to actually start an MSCA Fellowship. First, a grant agreement must be signed and the roles, rights, and duties of the parties must be accurately described. Then a contract must be issued by the Beneficiary, and the timing depends also on the National system of research, which always raises interoperability issues. It’s all part of a collective work of “entrainment”, as you work on the global fellowship implementation taking into account different time aspects: when courses in the outgoing institution will take place, when it would be the best moment to have fieldwork and when instead people go usually on summer and winter leave, when is the best moment for the secondment and for the returning phase, and especially when the employer will be able to hire you. You draw together different timelines with an ideal schedule in mind, but with a pandemic the schedule is likely delayed and the entrainment more glitchy. In my case, I had the REA notification on February 4th 2020, and was not able to start until November. This was due to the internal procedures of the Beneficiary, which had to arrange a new hiring framework for MSCA-IF positions and went through multiple organizational levels, including the Ministry of Research for the required nulla osta.

Although I planned to start in September at the latest, two months delay could be fair enough amid globally uncertain situations. Even timely, as Japan just opened its borders in October 2020 for special applicants, including visiting academics. What I had to do first was to request a certificate of eligibility that would allow me to get a special visa to enter the country through “Business Track” or “Residence Track”. Secondly, I prepared myself to organize the mandatory (tough and not cheap) two weeks of isolation after arrival, to be spent totally alone in a safe location. In the meantime, I started working remotely with my co-supervisor in U-Tokyo, following courses and events related to my project. After some paperwork from both the Beneficiary’s and the Partner’s side, Japanese Immigration Authorities approved my request in mid-December. The certificate was then sent by post to my address in Italy, to be presented when going to the Japanese embassy in Rome for my visa request. While waiting for the document, I booked my flight to Tokyo to leave on the 13th of January 2021 and have time to say some physically distant but emotionally close “A presto!” to parents and friends over the Christmas holidays. That did not happen without anxiety, as the spreading of B117 and P1 variants was out of control in Europe, and Japan entered the third wave of infections.

On December 26, Japan adopted new border enforcement measures to prevent the spread of novel coronavirus and its risky variants, which denied any foreign nationals to enter the country for the time being. When I received the Certificate of Eligibility on January 7, I could not make much use of it.

As I write this post, Japan postponed three times the new state of emergency, and so did I with my flight ticket: first I rebooked on February 13, then March 17, and finally March 31. The vaccines struggle to reach the population worldwide, and the situation is still critical and uncertain. I continue to enjoy remotely the training activities organized by UTokyo, taking place far away in another time lag, within the unusual nightly limbo of my home. Of course, I miss the intensive fieldwork that I have planned as a very important aspect of my Global fellowship. Nonetheless, I am aware that having the opportunity to work as an MSCA fellow put me on the lucky side, and the flexibility introduced by the EU is extraordinarily helpful in this situation, allowing me to do research by other means.

If you have the same honor and are about to start an MSCA Individual Fellowship, I would suggest you ask as precisely and in advance as possible how long the procedure will take to the Beneficiary to issue the contract, and make sure that you are timely updated along the way, in order to “entrain” better with the complexities. Also, you may consider postponing the starting date as long as you can until the emergency situation becomes more manageable (or less unmanageable if you prefer) if you have that option. If there are delays and glitches in your project (and there will certainly be), a pandemic just amplifies them. But there is a limit to the human entrainment capacity, and a pandemic is simply beyond that limit, especially dealing with a Global Fellowship and an outgoing phase to be spent outside Europe. In disrupted times, disrupted worlds, and  disrupted lives, research must be able to walk through serendipitous pathways.