Physics Diplomacy – Open Arms, Shared Goals and Global Challenges

Alice P. Gast

Whenever I attend an APS meeting, I am reminded of the common bonds among scientists. Renewing acquaintances and catching up with old friends, I think about how much we have in common, no matter where we come from. We may sometimes argue about best approaches to a problem or the validity of a theory, but all-in-all we speak the same language.

This is the foundation of the Science Envoy program launched in 2009 by the U.S. Department State. Envoys travel as private citizen scientists to designated countries to "seek to deepen existing ties and foster new relationships with foreign counterparts and gain insights from other nations about potential areas of collaboration that will help address global challenges and realize shared goals." 1 There have been six 2 science envoys to date, and my regions were Central Asia and the Caucasus. I traveled to Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, and met with senior government officials, ministers and scientists, professors, students and business leaders. In this article, I will primarily focus on the physics and physical science research and education I saw in Kazakhstan and offer some observations from Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan.

The premise of science diplomacy holds true: Scientists can and will work across borders. Everywhere I met scientists on my travels as an envoy, I was welcomed with open arms. Some went out of their way to compliment things I had done; others spoke effusively about their laboratory or research group. It is true that through our common search for discovery we scientists, indeed, can be diplomats.

The countries I visited became independent of the Soviet Union in 1991. They benefited from the solid foundation of Soviet education, research and infrastructure. They also show the legacy of Soviet hierarchical separation of research and education, where a strong, top-down Academy ran large research institutes and large universities educated students and had little time for research.

Now in 2012, twenty years after the 1992 Nunn-Lugar Act’s cooperative threat reduction program paved the way to eliminating nuclear weapons in former Soviet states, we are faced with an opportunity. Kazakhstan, in particular, is a country rich in oil, minerals and scientists. It is strategically located at the border of Russia and China and quickly building its trading and development opportunities with those neighbors. All three of these countries strongly desire to move from a commodity-based economy to an innovation economy. At the heart of this transformation, as we well know from US history, is research and education. We need to take this opportunity now to build collaborations, exchange students, visit and invite visits.

Kazakhstan - Integrating research and graduate education

In Kazakhstan, the benefits of the Soviet legacy and challenges they left behind are evident as they are working to integrate research and graduate education and to build on their strengths as physicists and mathematicians.

Nowhere is the challenge of change clearer than at the 15 year-old Eurasia National University (ENU) in Astana, Kazakhstan. Vice-Rector Rakhmetkazhi Bersimbayev described to me their approach to "transiting" to the US PhD system. Similar to a small American university, ENU has 13 schools with 10,000 students (800 Masters and 150 PhD). In order to enhance their graduate research, they have embarked on a program where graduate students will have two supervisors, one from Kazakhstan and one from the United States or the U.K. This collaboration helps alleviate one of their other challenges, a lack of adequate laboratory equipment. They carry out some solid-state physics and nanotechnology research with their own heavy ion accelerator, and they raise funds by running a commercial production line for nuclear track-etch membranes.

The heritage of strong physics research is apparent at the Institute of Nuclear Physics (INP). Founded in 1957 in Almaty, Kazakhstan, the INP pursues research in solid state physics, radioecology, and nuclear and radiation technologies. Deputy Director Petr Chakrov showed us their 6 MW light water research reactor, where they developed new methods in radioisotope production, radiation treatment of materials, ion-plasma synthesis of coatings, and radioactive waste management. The INP also works on radio-ecological monitoring and remediation of contaminated soil from sludge brought up by oil and gas extraction. In addition to the reactor, the INP has a cyclotron, a heavy ion accelerator, an electrostatic accelerator, and a commercial electron accelerator. In furtherance of the goal to integrate research and teaching, the INP accepts 150-200 graduate student interns each year. Some bridges to the United States exist: the INP has had collaborations with the University of Colorado, the University of Texas, Ohio University and Oakridge and Argonne National Laboratories.

"Global Challenges and Shared Goals" in Kazakhstan

Another legacy from the Soviet era is the aftermath of the cold war and the resulting security and environmental challenges. The 1992 Nunn-Lugar Act's cooperative threat reduction program focused serious attention on eliminating nuclear weapons in former Soviet states. The nuclear weapons program at the fast breeder reactor in Aktau left Kazakhstan with 3.3 tons of weapons grade plutonium and 11 tons of highly enriched uranium to dispose of. One of the key players in this work was KazAtomProm (KAP). Their president, Vladimir Shkolnik, described the close cooperation between Kazakhstan and the United States in the last 20 years. In addition to the successfully completed spent fuel program, Shkolnik cited collaborations with U.S. national laboratories, and the direct shipping and supply of uranium to U.S. nuclear companies. The INP has also contributed expertise in radioecology to help analyze and deal with the contamination at the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site. More recently, KAP’s attention turned toward alternative energy projects and it seeks collaborators for work on solar energy.

Open our doors to Kazakh physicists

These are but three examples of institutions with strength in physics research in Kazakhstan. I encourage the APS and its members to not only welcome, but overtly invite, Kazakh researchers to visit the US, attend our meetings and visit our laboratories. Volunteer to co-advise students at Eurasia National University in Astana. Recruit graduate students from their generous Bolashak Scholars program. Invite postdocs to spend time in your laboratories. The possibilities are great for collaborations in Kazakhstan, and the scientists are eager to work on hard problems with colleagues from around the world. We can find common ground in the important problems of today and the universal language of physics. It is in our interest to help them build their research capacity and develop an innovation economy independent of their powerful neighbors.

Azerbaijan – large and strong Academy and Universities

In Azerbaijan, the structure reflects its Soviet roots. Research is carried out in the more than forty institutes comprising the National Academy. President Kerimov of the Azerbaijan National Academy of Sciences (ANAS) said that professors at universities, such as Baku State University and Azerbaijan State Oil Academy, have little time for research and it is best done by the 10,000 staff members of the ANAS. There are signs of change in Azerbaijan – a new nanotechnology initiative is gaining momentum and two newer smaller private universities, Khazar University and Qafqaz University, are teaching in English.

Open, peer-reviewed competition for research funds are important to develop internationally recognized science. Azerbaijan’s Science Development Foundation has a dynamic young leader, Elchin Babayev, and an impressive young and engaging staff of grants officers. Ten months into their existence, they were launching their third competition for grants and running peer-reviewed competitions with a database of reviewers from the "scientific diaspora" of Azeri scientists. They are a model of transparency, with all proposal titles and funding levels displayed on the web. They share reports and have weekly seminars for scientists wanting to learn how to improve their proposals. They had a well-attended meeting at Baku State University on this topic. Their priorities are in nanotechnology, security and safety, geosciences, and biotechnology.

Uzbekistan – Physics research from ancient times to today

Gast in front of the Ulugh Beg Astronomical Observatory in Samarkand, Uzbekistan
Gast in front of the Ulugh Beg Astronomical Observatory in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Gast with Shavkat Salikhov, President of the Uzbek Academy of Science
Gast with Shavkat Salikhov, President of the Uzbek Academy of Science

Physics research dates back six hundred years in Uzbekistan, and Samarkand is a striking site for a physicist to visit. This ancient city is home to many historic schools and mosques, and was a center of learning in the 15th century. The Ulugh Beg Astronomical Observatory was built around 1420 by Astronomer Ulugh Beg and was the largest instrument of its kind. It was a center of collaboration in its time, with some 60 -70 astronomers working there. When visiting, one can see the trench aligned with the Meridian that formed part of the sextant used to observe and accurately measure the positions of planets, stars, the sun and the moon.

Today, that heritage of scholarly activity continues with a focus on health, clean water and food production, and a rather unique international resource, a solar furnace. The president of the Academy, Shavkat Salikhov, gave us a personal briefing describing the Academy, also structured in the Soviet model, with 48 research institutes carrying out the main scientific research in the country. He described their priorities on biotechnology, biochemistry, food security, and health. Their scientific strengths include researchers in chemistry especially fertilizer chemistry, pharmacy, renewable energy, and biotechnology research, especially genetic research on cotton. There is considerable activity in solar energy, and Uzbekistan and France operate a unique solar furnace which can reach temperatures of 2500 degrees and is an important test facility for materials.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science is organizing a 2012 workshop with Uzbek and American bioscience researchers meeting successively in Tashkent and in the U.S. Additional exchanges like this await the good ideas and energy of the scientific community.


My travels to Central Asia and the Caucasus resulted in valuable exchanges and goodwill. This is a beginning to what I hope will spread throughout the international science community. Science is truly a global enterprise, and scientists are natural diplomats.

Professor Alice P. Gast is the President of Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Dr. Gast, an internationally renowned scholar, researcher and academic leader, was appointed the 13th president of Lehigh University in 2006. Prior to her appointment at Lehigh, Dr. Gast served as the vice president for research and associate provost at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and held the Robert T. Haslam chair in chemical engineering. She previously spent 16 years as a professor of chemical engineering at Stanford University and the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Laboratory. In 2010, Dr. Gast was named to the prestigious post of science envoy by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and the U.S. Department of State.


1.Senator Lugar Announces Three New Science Envoys, Media Note, Office of the Spokesman, Washington DC, September 17, 2010

2. Three envoys were announced by Secretary Clinton in November 2009, Bruce Alberts, Elias Zerhouni and Ahmed Zewail. The second set of envoys was announced by Senator Richard Lugar in June 2010 and included myself, Gebisa Ejeta and Rita Colwell.

Disclaimer—The articles and opinion pieces found in this issue of the APS Forum on International Physics Newsletter are not peer refereed and represent solely the views of the authors and not necessarily the views of the APS.