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Culture, history and society

IOP supporting international collaboration

12 March 2019

by Rachel Youngman

This week our building is host to a meeting for the Department of Business, Enterprise, Innovation and Skills’ (BEIS) International Science and Innovation Directorate.

As we look to that meeting, it’s a good time to talk about our work internationally.

Why work internationally?

The simple answer to this is that physics is international. The challenges that physics has the capacity to take on – climate change, energy, de-carbonisation – are all international and need to be addressed by countries working together.

At the IOP, we are the physical society for the UK and Ireland, but we have many international members and our publishing arm, IOPP, serves readers around the globe. Many of our members are working in international collaborations, and our membership has a proud tradition of actively engaging with, working with and supporting physicists in other countries.

Physics, like other sciences, relies on international collaboration: it is done by multinational teams within universities and industry, and shows the best of what can be achieved by people from different countries working together.

International work is essential for physicists, so the IOP works to support international co-operation between physicists. We do this by using our convening power to provide a neutral space in which international networks and collaborations can be developed.

“When meetings take place in a neutral space, when there is no agenda, a different sort of conversation can take place”

A visit from a Chinese delegation showed the power of this approach. We brought together senior people from several Chinese research facilities, who met with their peers from the UK and Ireland. Such meetings don’t often happen this way. Governments or universities who might similarly take the lead in facilitating meetings will usually do so to promote trade or research, understandably seeking to privilege their own academics or institutions.

When meetings take place in a neutral space, when there is no agenda, a different sort of conversation can take place. We saw what a difference we can make as a non-governmental organisation working independently of any industry or university, in the quality and nature of the conversations that took place during that visit.

We also work with international partners to support people earlier in their careers, through our education and engagement programmes. For example, we recently hosted Nobel Laureate Professor Donna Strickland for a public lecture for A-level and undergraduate students, arranged in association with the Canadian High Commission. That has led to continued discussions about further collaboration with Canada alongside the opportunities we already provide early career physicists through travel bursaries. So international work is a core part of what we do as the physical society for the UK and Ireland.

However, in challenging times we have to think about how best to engage internationally, to have the most value for our members and the greatest benefit for physics as a whole.

Changing international context

Like many other fields, we recognise the potential for dislocation that could arise as a result of Brexit. This could mean new opportunities opening up as well as the potential for increased difficulties in working with EU colleagues.

Whatever shape Brexit eventually takes, we will work to ensure that key interests are protected as far as possible. Movement of people, for example, is essential for physicists.

Within university physics departments, 18% of staff and students are from EU countries and 27% from outside the EU – so we have a big stake in how immigration works after Brexit. Similarly, the funding framework that the European Commission has provided will be a big challenge to replace.

Access to infrastructure and membership of key European agencies such as EURATOM remain vital, and international regulation has a huge impact on businesses and research.

Across all these areas, we must ensure we are working to try to ensure the best outcomes possible for UK and Irish physicists. We will continue to represent them at the highest levels in the UN and Europe, through our seats at the European Physical Society, the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics, and our bilateral relationships with other physical societies.

More broadly though, we have been working hard to consider what our international programme should look like. With this in mind, it is worth laying out a few principles.

  • Our international programme supports our work as a national physical society looking to be the best that it can be. We have a new strategy for the IOP in development at the moment. International work will run through it, as an integral part of addressing challenges that face our people and skills as well as research and development.
  • Given the challenges and uncertainties we face, we must be strategic in all that we do. Our strategic approach can be summarised as: working where we can really make a difference, in ways that are appropriate, in partnership with local physical societies, and where we have a direct role in shaping a programme we will make sure there is an exit plan so that the work is ultimately owned by local people. Our focus will be on supporting physicists who need it most.
  • We are independent of government, led by our members’ agenda, not the government, but we recognise that often our goals are synergistic.

A strategic, targeted approach

We need to operate where we can have the most value. Some of our members don’t need us to support their international work: some fields are already very well connected internationally (and many large companies exceptionally so). But for some of our members, especially those involved in young spin-off businesses – what I call the ‘S’s’ within SMEs – there is an important role to play. Supporting skills and opportunities for physics-based start-ups will make a big contribution to the future economy, in the UK and Ireland and overseas.

These are the high-growth companies that will create jobs and develop the technologies that will make people’s lives better and help us to tackle some of the great challenges in the world.

To underpin our work we are about to start work on our review of the skills gaps in the UK workforce against the needs of the SME community and in the context of the industrial strategy. This will include the importance of place and how we can work with international research networks to re-industrialise with deep-tech business investment and improve productivity.

“Supporting skills and opportunities for physics-based start-ups will make a big contribution to the future economy”

When looking to other countries, our role is to support the work of other physical societies. Our work in Tanzania provides a good example of how this can have a real impact. Conversations with the Tanzanian physical society revealed to us how we could support them to develop entrepreneurial skills and aid business development for SMEs in science and technology. There were concerns that young people in Tanzania were not developing the skills they need to build companies, which are essential to future job creation for the young population of that country.

Our approach there has been to connect the Tanzanian physical society and the University of Dar es Salaam with the government and private sector’s incubator for SMEs. This partnership of public and private sectors with academics developed into a programme of training for young people to understand how to use physics in a business – all the way from initial idea to investor pitch.

With some help from IOP – mostly through in-kind support – but primarily driven by the local partnership, the training programme has become a successful model, which will continue to be run by the incubator with decreasing support from us. A mark of its success is it has become part of the Tanzanian ecosystem.

Home and away

While we will continue to ensure there is strong engagement with physical societies in Europe and other strategically important territories such as the US, India, China and Japan, we will couple this with work to support physicists in other countries when there is a clear need and we can work with their physical society to achieve a useful objective.

In this way we can deliver the best for physicists. Using our convening power, providing a neutral space for sharing learning and fostering connections, we can open doors for our members that can help them in their research or development journey. And through this support we can ultimately support physics itself – creating the conditions for physics to tackle the global problems that international science is uniquely able to address.