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When East meets West


Centennial Hall in Wrocław, where the meeting took place

By Susan Curtis

I was recently in the Polish city of Wrocław to attend the second Asian-European Physics Summit (ASEPS), where one message emerged loud and clear – scientists from West and East need to collaborate with each other more.

The summit brought together representatives of the European Physical Society with those from the Association of Asian Physical Societies. The latter is an umbrella organization that represents the physical societies of countries such as Japan, China, Korea, Australia and India.

Physicists at the meeting argued that working together is the best way to push the boundaries of scientific discovery, while policy-makers recognized that the drive for ever-more-sophisticated research facilities can only be realized by combining global resources.

There was good news in Wrocław from speakers from Japan, Korea and China, who reported that science funding is increasing across Asia. While Japan already has a reputation for research excellence, China and Korea are making big investments in basic research in a bid to move up the value chain from product supply to a knowledge-based economy. They are keen to work with European research centres to speed up that transition, and to learn from Europe’s approach to developing a structured and collaborative research infrastructure.

A good example of how that’s happening in practice is Korea’s activity in fusion research. Having established its capability with the KSTAR research tokamak, Korea has become a key member of the ITER consortium, which is building a proof-of-concept fusion reactor in the south of France. Korea plans to exploit the experience gained at ITER to build a commercial nuclear-fusion facility sometime between 2022 and 2036.

But collaborations like that are few and far between. Asian scientists have traditionally viewed the US as the best place to develop a physics career, so much so that Asia is suffering a brain drain as talented scientists relocate for better pay and research opportunities. And while some Asian scientists come to Europe to work on particular projects, very few European researchers spend significant time in Asia.

In January 2009 the EU set up a project called KORANET to investigate the reasons why. One obvious problem is the eight- or nine-hour time gap, combined with the cultural and linguistic differences that make it hard for Asian scientists to live and work Europe, and for Europeans to move to Asia. More practical problems also discourage mobility, such as finding suitable accommodation and ensuring continuity of pensions provision and healthcare insurance.

One idea suggested by KORANET is for European research organizations to set up “branches” in Asia. A particularly successful initiative has been the Sino-German Center for Research Promotion, a joint venture formed 10 years ago to co-ordinate and encourage collaborative activities between China and Germany. The Max Planck Society has also established 24 partner groups in China, which allows Chinese students and postdocs to gain research experience in Europe before returning to work in well funded, well equipped Chinese facilities.

For their part, delegates at the ASEPS event said that more exchange opportunities should be developed for small research programmes as well as for large projects, and that a network of local contact points should be set up to help scientists who are working in an unfamiliar part of the world.

To encourage student mobility – which will be crucial for future collaboration – delegates were keen to ensure mutual recognition of degrees, and suggested a joint summer school to address some of the key challenges facing young physicists, such as the need for sustainable energy technologies.

A small working group will take these ideas forward so that real progress can be reported at the next ASEPS meeting, which is due to take place in Asia at some point over the next two years.

In the meantime, don’t forget to check out our Physics World special report on China, which can be read via this link.

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