Working in physics: Physicists without borders

Experienced physicists looking for the opportunity to get involved in international-development work may find the IAEA to be a perfect fit, as Michelle Jeandron discovers.


The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which has its headquarters in Vienna, Austria, is a specialized agency of the United Nations (UN) that seeks to promote the safe, secure and peaceful use of nuclear technology. It has three main areas of expertise. It is the world’s nuclear inspectorate, sending inspectors to more than 140 UN member states, from Brazil to Japan, to verify that nuclear technology is not being used for military purposes. The IAEA also helps countries to improve their nuclear safety procedures and to prepare for emergencies. Finally, it serves as a focal point for the world’s development of nuclear science and technology across all fields.

The science and technology arm of the IAEA consists of a diverse team of several hundred scientists experienced in doing research in all areas that use atomic or nuclear technology, including medical physics, isotope hydrology, plant breeding (radiation is used to induce mutations) and nuclear fission and fusion. People with physics backgrounds can be found working on specific projects in most of these areas — and especially those related to nuclear energy.

However, the IAEA also has a dedicated “Physics Section”, which comes under the umbrella of the Department of Nuclear Sciences and Applications. This currently consists of six professional physicists, as well as a team of clerical staff, who are all based in Vienna.

“Whereas physicists in other departments are working on just one project or sub-programme, the Physics Section is in a position to support the member states with their more general physics needs,” explains section head Günter Mank. “Say a member state wants to know how neutrons can be used to detect explosives. It can come to us and the Physics Section will explain about the possibilities and the restrictions, and provide guidance on how to initiate such an activity.” For example, the section is currently providing assistance to the SESAME light-source project, which is a synchrotron facility being built in Jordan that, it is hoped, will foster scientific co-operation throughout the Middle East (see Physics World April pp16–17; print version only).

The support given by the Physics Section usually involves providing education and training in the operation of accelerators and research reactors, and helping member states to select, run and maintain the instrumentation that they need for their nuclear activities. “Together with the IAEA’s Technical Cooperation Department, for instance, we are supporting a new laboratory in Afghanistan, ensuring that they get the basic physics equipment they need for teaching students about nuclear physics and radiation physics,” Mank explains. This facility, which will be part of Kabul University, will improve the university’s existing nuclear-physics programmes and will include provision for several new medical-physics experiments.

Fostering fusion
One of the most important duties that the Physics Section has to fulfil is looking after the IAEA’s sub-programme on nuclear fusion. As part of this role, it is the facilitator of the ITER project, a co-operative venture, first proposed in the mid-1980s, to create an experimental fusion reactor. Currently involving China, the European Union (EU), India, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the US, the plan is to construct and run a large tokamak designed to produce approximately 500 MW of fusion power sustained for up to 400 s. Last year, Mank and his colleagues were able to celebrate as ITER was formally established as an international organization and building work got under way at the project site in Cadarache, France.

Another important way in which the Physics Section supports fusion research is by organizing scientific meetings that bring together the world’s fusion experts to discuss their work. “Every two years we organize the so-called Fusion Energy Conference,” Mank explains. “This year’s conference, which will take place in Geneva in October, celebrates the 50th anniversary of the UN starting work on fusion in 1958.” (The IAEA itself turned 50 last year, see Physics World July 2007 pp8–9; print version only.)

The nature of this work means that physicists working in the Physics Section do not actually do physics research themselves. Instead, a typical working day might involve attending a scientific or administrative meeting with representatives from member states, as well as preparing for and organizing other such meetings. “I myself prepare two to three technical meetings worldwide each year, which involves interacting with the member states and liaising with the speakers or the local organizer,” says Mank.

The IAEA also provide grants or fellowships to physicists from developing countries who would like to attend these events, and administering these is the responsibility of the Physics Section. “We are also involved in about 30–40 technical co-operation projects worldwide — such as the new physics laboratory at Kabul — for which there has to be some paperwork done and items have to be procured,” Mank continues. “Overall we see ourselves as a knowledgeable facilitator for the member states.”

Cosmopolitan physics
People who come to work in the Physics Section are usually experienced physicists who already have a successful international research career. Mank, for example, is originally from Germany and has a background in fusion and plasma physics. Before joining the IAEA in 2003, he worked on international projects at the National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory in Michigan, US, at the Jülich Research Centre in Germany, as well as on preparations for the European Spallation Source. “The driving force for me was a desire to initiate new things in an international environment,” he explains. “Indeed, I get the impression that a lot of scientists who come to the IAEA would like to make a difference.”

Joining the Physics Section provides physicists with the opportunity to become more deeply involved in international science administration — in fact, officers in the section are often individually responsible for projects such as SESAME. “One of my officers, for example, who was an expert in using low and medium-energy accelerators, was working with member states in Africa to build-up a sub-Saharan network of accelerators,” says Mank. “The UN allows us, within restrictions, to encourage new ideas.”

To succeed in this type of role, therefore, you need to have a lot of international experience. Having worked in a range of different countries is a must, and being good at languages is beneficial. “Being a physicist in the IAEA is not only about physics, it is also about a lot of cultural interactions,” concludes Mank. “It is very important that physicists who come to the IAEA recognize the multicultural environment and the different possibilities and restrictions that other cultures present for doing science.”

For young physicists interested in a career in scientific administration, the Physics Section takes on several interns for 3–6 months each year, see

This article originally appeared in the May 2008 issue of Physics World

Image credit: Petr Pavlicke, IAEA

last edited: June 27, 2018

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