APS News

International Desk

Roundtables Address Global Exchange, Collaboration.

Taking advantage of the plethora of foreign physicists from around the globe who flocked to the APS Centennial meeting in Atlanta, Georgia, in March, APS Committee on International Scientific Affairs (CISA) and the APS Department of International Scientific Affairs organized four roundtable discussions held on Sunday, March 20th. The panels addressed such topics as the potential of virtual laboratories for research collaborations, promoting international research and educational collaboration, the international role of individual physical societies, and the implications of science and technology for accelerating research capabilities and economic growth in developing countries.

Virtual Laboratories and Collaborations
Facilitated by James Vary (University of Iowa) and Galileo Violini, the roundtable on virtual collaboration included participants from South Africa, El Salvador, Croatia, Sri Lanka, Lithuania, the Ivory Coast, the Czech Republic, Italy and Chile. Vary used the summary of a report on The Virtual Laboratory: Electronic Support for Cooperative Scientific Research, as a starting point for the discussion. (A copy of the report is available at http://www.iitap.iastate.edu/reports/vl.) There was a general consensus that the Virtual Laboratory (VL) approach offered promising opportunities for international collaboration in scientific research and education, especially for bridging the gap between developing and developed countries. However, there was emphatic agreement that a prerequisite for meaningful international cooperation is a strong national science program.

One major advantage of VL is the possibility of video conferencing since facial expressions and body language can contribute significantly to better understanding than conventional email and telephone conversations. VL could also become an important tool inteaching introductory laboratory science, helping junior researchers avoid isolation, and being better able to continue research at a distance. But the participants believe that personal contact is still essential. Many believe that "hands-on" experience is essential to learning introductory laboratory science, and hence feel that junior researchers should have strong exposure to "hands-on" experiences before going into a remote mode of research.

Recommendations arising from the discussion included the suggestion that national facilities, including computational facilities, adopt a policy towards greater international collaborations and thereby increase their effective use for first rate science. Greater promotion of capacity building to enable strong national science programs as the fundamental basis of international cooperation is also needed, along with the promotion of more international exchanges of scientists, not limited to conference participation but including longer term bi-directional exchanges and participation of post-docs.

International Role of the Physical Societies
Another roundtable focused on the international role of physical societies in various countries, organized by Shang-Fen Ren, president of the Chinese Physical Society. While more than 25 scientists participated in the general discussion, the seven featured speakers represented societies from a wide range of geographical areas.

Participants identified current problems of particular concern as: decreasing enrollments in physics courses; decreasing funding to physics; the growing unwillingness of Engineering Departments to have physics courses taught by faculty from the Physics Department; and the responsibility of physicists regarding nuclear weapons issues. One potential source of these difficulties was deemed to be the longstanding arrogance of physicists. There is also a great need to modify the existing physics teaching curriculum, finding ways to make physics courses more accessible to stem the emigration of potential physicists into engineering disciplines - perhaps by including more emphasis on practical problem solving.

Finally, it was noted that economists have shown the positive connection between basic R&D and the economy; investment in the former usually leads to a phenomenal return to the latter. The participants affirmed the ongoing need to keep working on this connection repeatedly with politicians responsible for establishing national science policy.

Promoting International Research and Educational Collaboration
Coordinated by Ivan Schuller of the University of California, San Diego, this roundtable on promoting international research and educational collaboration had approximately 40 international participants with a cross section from national labs, universities and industrial labs. After considerable discussion, the participants first and foremost reaffirmed the importance of motivation behind scientific and educational operations, namely, that these should be driven by real scientific and educational needs, and not by high-level bureaucratic decisions. Furthermore, the primary role of such programs should be to facilitate interactions between individual scientists, not to create new programs and bureaucracies which may or may not be needed.

Nevertheless, the discussants recognized the inherent difficulty in seeking to apply general rules to guide cooperations, since these depend strongly on the particular countries, areas of research, and individuals. They identified many existing programs with funding already in place for improving international collaborations. It was suggested that the APS attempt to centralize the current information of available funding sources via its website to aid foreign scientists seeking collaborations in locating such sources. In addition, the participants felt that the APS should make an effort to publicize the availability of this information through advertisements in journals and magazines such as Physics Today and APS News.

Science and Technology: Implications for Accelerating Research Capabilities and Economic Growth in Developing Countries
Kennedy Reed of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory led a roundtable discussion on science and technology, focusing on its implications for accelerating research capabilities and economic growth in developing countries. Participants included American scientists who had some experience with science and technology in developing countries and scientists from developing countries of Senegal, Algeria, Taiwan and Brazil. "Each of these had an interesting perspective on how science and technology can impact economic growth in developing countries, and each had interesting perspectives on how interaction with the European and American scientific communities can accelerate the growth of science and technology in developing countries," says Reed.

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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette