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Europe and Asia

Missing one side of the global research triangle

Nine-tenths of global research takes place at three main locations: Europe, north America, and Asia. But if we examine the necessary interactions among the three, one side of the triangle is noticeably weak.

American and European research have always been tightly bonded. Much US research was established by refugees from Europe, and such migration sustains US research universities and national laboratories right up to the present. Asian students, in turn, have flowed into the US in their tens of thousands in the past two decades, dominating the research workforce in many disciplines, then, as often as not, returning home with ideas, collaborations and joint appointments.

Unfortunately, the ties that bind European research with the established research powerhouse of Japan and the fast-emerging research systems of China, India, Taiwan, Korea and Singapore, are weak and tentative.

It was in this context that leading physicists—representing a science discipline that has customarily led the way in international research collaboration—met two weeks ago in Wroclaw, Poland, for the second Asia Europe Physics summit. European and Asian physicists have been drawn closer together of late by substantial Asian involvement in particle physics at Cern in Switzerland, and by the participation of Japan, China, India and Korea in the Iter fusion experiment being built at Cadarache in France. Language barriers between researchers from, say, Beijing and Berlin, have also diminished markedly with their growing fluency in English.

However, considerable obstacles remain to closer working relationships between researchers in Asia and Europe. One heard in Wroclaw was the unwillingness of many European students even to apply for post-graduate study or work in Asia—there is already a relatively healthy flow of young people in the opposite direction.

Another is the fragmentation of Asian science. The difficulties of constructing a seamless European Research Area may seem daunting to us here in Europe. But, from an Asian perspective, such a project looks pretty impressive, in contrast with the almost total absence of co-ordination between many Asian nations. Yet Asia faces the same basic challenge as Europe does: if it wants to create a research system as open and powerful as that of the US, its nations needs to work together.

Another area of common ground is the co-existence of small territories such as the Netherlands, Switzerland, Taiwan and Singapore, whose university systems are highly receptive to international talent, with large ones (Germany, Italy, China and Japan) so self-contained they deter outsiders. Japan has made strenuous efforts over many years to build research centres to attract foreign talent. Nevertheless, like Germany, much of its university system remains too staid and hierarchical to give incomers a chance of furthering their careers.

As speakers in Wroclaw noted, the strong ties that exist between the US and Asia have come about mainly as a result of bottom-up actions by thousands of individuals. It is difficult to see how top-down actions by physics societies or governments can make the necessary progress. But it is easier to see a role for institutions, such as universities, in pushing at a door that is open, and building stronger ties between Europe and Asia.