Knowledge Across Borders

Like many of you, this week I’ve watched in horror at the invasion of Ukraine and the senseless violence that has followed. In light of the escalating situation and ongoing international response, it didn’t feel right to pen a cheery article about the role of symmetry in physics, as I’d originally intended to post this week.

Instead, I’d like to use this week’s post to talk about international cooperation, and why in a world increasingly focused on ideas of sovereignty and closed borders, working across borders remains just as vital as ever before for the progress of science.

We don’t have to look far to see some particularly dramatic examples of international cooperation in science – we can literally see one just by looking up at night when the sky is clear, and watching for a bright dot racing across the sky: the International Space Station. Built by a collection of countries (including the US, Canada, Japan, Russia and various European nations) over more than a decade, with a crew drawn from 19 countries, the International Space Station is a beacon of how countries working together can create something that an individual nation alone wouldn’t have been able to achieve.

For an example a little closer to home, we can look to the enormous particle accelerators such as CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, located in Switzerland not far from the border with France but funded by a wide range of countries including 23 EU member states and several other countries with ‘Observer’ status, or the Super-Kamiokande neutrino observatory constructed beneath Mount Ikeno in Japan with significant US involvement. There are many other similar examples that I could list. The infrastructure of modern science is now often so complex and expensive that projects of this scale are prohibitive for individual nations, but much more doable when the investment is spread across multiple countries or continents.

Image from Wikimedia Commons, reproduced under the GNU Free Documentation License.

Image from Wikimedia Commons, reproduced under the GNU Free Documentation License.

But international scientific collaboration isn’t all about massive, complex pieces of equipment and vast sums of money. The quieter, much more common act of scientists moving from country to country in order to do their work also has a huge impact.

As one small personal example, I’m currently funded by the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA) programme. This scheme aims to ‘foster research cooperation across borders, sectors and disciplines’, inspired by its namesake Marie Skłodowska-Curie who moved from her native Poland to France in order to conduct her Nobel prize-winning research. The idea is that this scheme enables scientists to gain experience working in other countries, bringing with them some specialist knowledge which they possess and in turn learning new tips and tricks from researchers in their host country. This allows for the rich cross-border exchange of knowledge, and ensures that if researchers move to another country afterwards, they do so with a new set of skills and an expanded international network of contacts, co-authors and collaborators.

This scheme enabled me to move from France to Germany, where I’ve joined a huge group filled with researchers not only from Germany, but from many other countries. Each brings their own unique skillset, background and knowledge to create a melting pot of ideas that is far more than the sum of our individual parts, not least because the education systems in different countries tend to focus on different things, and so we all end up with a subtly different set of skills and knowledge. I don’t for a second think that the scientific environment of Freie Universität would be nearly so productive or stimulating if not for the mixing of ideas facilitated by international mobility and the commitment of the both the university in general and Prof. Eisert’s research group in particular to proactively recruiting and welcoming international researchers.

While not everyone will have the freedom to be able to uproot and move to another country 1, for those who are able, it’s a fantastic opportunity to make new connections in other countries, to learn new things and simply see how things are done in different cultures. And for those who are not able to do this, perhaps due to family commitments or simply feeling at home where they are, widespread international mobility still allows researchers from other countries to visit them, or for them to make short term international visits and conferences. Even when I was a student in my home country of Scotland, only a small percentage of my lecturers and tutors were from the UK, so I reaped the benefits of international mobility well before even leaving the country. Following Brexit, I do hope the UK will continue to attract researchers from other countries to enable this mutually beneficial mixing of ideas and cultures to continue.

Over my ten-year research career I’ve been employed at five institutions in three countries (the UK, France and Germany), visited half a dozen countries for conferences and workshops (Germany, the USA, Italy, Spain, France, Switzerland…) and worked with and alongside researchers from well over a dozen countries (Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, China, Germany, the UK, the USA, Canada, Japan, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Chile, Brazil, Switzerland, the Netherlands and too many others to count). I hope that this number continues to grow in the years to come. Indeed, just a few weeks ago I was corresponding with a Ukranian physicist, who I sincerely hope is safe and well.

I’m no expert in international relations or politics, and I can’t pretend to have an informed opinion on the ongoing tensions between nation states other than to support peaceful resolutions to conflicts wherever possible. This post isn’t a carefully thought out essay, or a persuasive argument, or anything other than a lament that the spirit of international cooperation isn’t shared by many of our current politicians and leaders. But if there’s anything my career has taught me thus far, it’s that we all benefit when we find ways to constructively work together across borders and between nations. Whatever happens to the evolving international political landscape, I hope that this spirit of cooperation will prevail in the long run.

If you have a story of how international mobility has benefited you and you’d like to share, please drop me a message on Twitter and let me know. Please also consider finding ways to support refugees from the current crisis in Ukraine, in whatever way you are able to do so.

  1. And particularly in light of the recent shift to remote working, it remains to be seen whether there are new possibilities for hiring across borders to enable more democratic forms of international mixing. ↩︎