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Latin American Societies Take Lead in Enhancing Physics Collaboration Internationally

Attendees at the International conference on enhancing physics collaboration in the Americas.
Attendees at the International conference on enhancing physics collaboration in the Americas.

An unprecedented number of representatives from 21 national and regional physical societies throughout the Western Hemisphere - including the APS - met in Cuernavaca, Mexico in early November for a conference on enhancing physics collaboration in the Americas. The meeting's primary purpose was to examine the status and potential for promoting scholarly exchange in the Americas, with particular emphasis on education and research collaborations.

"Historically, there has always been a special relationship between the U.S. and Latin American physics communities," said Irving Lerch, Director of International Affairs, pointing out that a decade ago, Fermilab's then-director Leon Lederman specifically promoted such programs. More recently, APS Executive Officer Judy Franz and outgoing President Andy Sessler have sought to further encourage Latin-American participation through an invigorated program of collaboration among the physical societies. "The growing presence of Latin- American physicists in North America has created new opportunities to promote increased participation in hemispheric research and academic programs."

The Cuernavaca conference was unique from past regional meetings not only in its format - a structured agenda with specific items for discussion - but also in the sheer range of the countries represented: Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Cuba, Nicaragua, Ecuador, the Dominican Republic, Bolivia, Panama, Venezuela, Colombia, Peru, El Salvador, Guatemala, Uruguay, and Costa Rica, as well as Spain, the U.S. and Canada. "I don't think there's ever been a meeting of this magnitude before, with this level of participation," said Gordon Drake (University of Windsor), who represented the Canadian Association of Physicists (CAP). "I gained a much better knowledge of the needs of Latin American countries and made many new personal contacts."

According to APS delegate James Vary, director of Iowa State University's International Institute of Theoretical Physics, there was a general recognition among the participants not only of the increased internationalization of physics, but also of the fact that the physics community has common problems to address that transcend national borders: improving the quality of physics education, improving the public perception of physics, and advancing scientific research through better collaborative programs, to name a few. The emphasis on bilateral exchange, without a sense of U.S. patronization, was also an important feature of the meeting. "The focus was on finding those areas where both sides benefit by working together because in the end those are the ones that will be sustainable efforts," said Vary.

Bill Blanpied (National Science Foundation), who has long been active in APS international concerns, was particularly encouraged by what he perceived as a new sense of leadership on the part of the Mexican Physical Society (SMF, Sociedad Mexicana de Fisica), which chiefly organized the meeting. "I think in recent years the SMF has gained a great deal of confidence in its own ability to step forward and take initiative," he said. "If there's going to be any significant networking of physical societies in the Americas, the U.S. can't take the lead. We can be supportive, but it's got to be the Latin American countries that take the early steps forward."

The Importance of Physics in Modern Society

At the Cuernavaca meeting, a brief general statement was drafted on the importance and relevance of physics to all advanced societies. The intent was to construct a statement that would be broadly useful to the participants, at least as a starting point, in their lobbying efforts with their local governments for the support of physics. Individual points could then be amplified or elaborated upon as appropriate in particular cases.

It was suggested that this statement should also be forwarded to IUPAP for consideration and discussion at the IUPAP General Assembly meeting next March in Atlanta. The resulting document would perhaps then be useful in a broader context as a means to encourage better levels of support for physics in countries throughout the world. The text of the statement is available from the online version of the January 1999 APS News [www.aps.org].

"For me, the meeting served to put into perspective not only the areas in which we have a lot of common ground, but also to highlight areas in which we are not always in universal agreement," said Lynn Boatner (Oak Ridge National Laboratory), another APS delegate who chairs the APS Committee on International Scientific Affairs. Lerch said, "If you're going to make progress, you need to work around these, either by resolving them, if you can, or by avoiding them to concentrate on the commonalities on which we can build a mutual understanding."

Following a day of presentations by representatives from various countries, participants split into three working groups. The three working groups were: 1. research exchanges; 2. educational exchanges; and 3. telecommunications, with each producing a series of recommendations for that area. In keeping with the general thrust of the meeting, the group on research exchanges ranked increasing the degree of cooperation between Latin American and U.S. and Canadian scientists as a top priority, although there has been some scientific collaboration in the past.

Better resource information was deemed crucial to fostering future collaboration. To this end, a directory of U.S. and Canadian researchers, as well as Latin American expatriates, willing to establish collaborations in Latin America is under development, along with a list of potential funding sources. Vary believes the APS and CAP can play a vital role in serving as a focal point for systematically organizing such information. Numerous members of the APS Forum on International Physics have already volunteered to be listed as scientific contacts. Sessler emphasized the need for Latin American physicists to become involved in the science policy and funding decisions of their respective countries. "If we put physicists in the government, it will be easier to educate the government about physics," he said, possibly resulting in increased funding for research and collaborations.

Improving the quality of high school physics education is another major goal. "There are quite low levels of support for physics and post-secondary education and research in Latin American countries," said Drake, who sees a strong need for more contact with the international physics community to broaden student horizons. "Many students coming out of high school haven't received anything near the same standard of training in physics that they would receive in the U.S. or Canada."

Suggestions for accomplishing this included establishing or improving training schools for teachers, translating AAPT materials into other languages, and enhancing the role of Physics Olympiads in all countries. To improve undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral programs, the group suggested arranging exchange programs between universities for both students and professors, as well as summer internships at national laboratories in the Western Hemisphere so that students can gain valuable research experience. Establishing programs for promoting science among children in the general public could be accomplished with mobile museums, children's workshops, and visits to laboratories.

The working group on telecommunications recommended the immediate organization of a Western Hemisphere Council of Editors to study and propose ways of strengthening the electronic publishing enterprise in physics, and to coordinate the development and implementation of joint activities. The group also encouraged the physical societies of Latin America to form a confederation of journal users - i.e., institutional and laboratory libraries - to help define the journal access needs of the physics community, and negotiate agreements with journal publishers to gain the widest possible access to the physics literature.

The infrequency of citation among Latin American journals, compared with the major English-language journals, was of particular concern to many participants, generating a useful discussion on achieving a balance between regional diversity and international connectivity, according to Blanpied. "Physics is certainly international, but there is still something unique about the regional cultures and educational systems," he said. "How do you preserve the scientific culture of a region, which is represented to a large extent by the journals, and yet also somehow connect that to the international journals?" While no easy solutions emerged, participants discussed the possibility of translating the best papers published in Spanish-language journals to give them broader exposure outside the region.

Recognizing the commercial nature of the Internet, which is dominated by private enterprise and overseen by government, the telecommunications group urged FeLaSoFi; Federacion Latinoamericana de Sociedades de Fisica (Federation of Latin American Physical Societies), to form a working group to seek commercial, private foundation and government partners to achieve affordable and reliable access to the telecommunications networks. Boatner in particular believes that establishing an electronic communications network will be crucial to improving access and exchange of information between physicists in the U.S., Canada and Latin America.

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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette