AIP | Matters
-- -- July 8, 2013

Fred Dylla Director's Matters

By H. Frederick Dylla, Executive Director & CEO

An Irish Gathering for Science

Ireland has designated 2013 as a banner year with a series of clan gatherings, festivals, and events across the country that make up The Gathering Ireland 2013, a yearlong celebration of all things Irish. The country has extended a worldwide invitation to anyone with even a modicum of Irish roots to visit this island nation this year. Events are planned around sports, music, culture, science, and even diplomacy. In June, for instance, Ireland marked the 50th anniversary of John Kennedy’s visit to his ancestral homeland, and the Irish prime minister hosted the G8 Conference and a visit from President Obama, who can also boast of some Irish ancestry on his mother’s side.

On June 17-18, another gathering happened in Ireland that was purposely not promoted in the press. However, the meeting’s influence on the evolution of Irish science may, in several years, be noted as a threshold event.

Ireland as a nation has not invested heavily in local science infrastructure, nor has it contributed to centralized scientific facilities hosted by other nations, a trend that has characterized the frontiers of many fields of science for the last 40-50 years. There is a current movement, however, called Big Science Ireland to develop the concept of bringing big science to Ireland. The gathering held a modest-sized workshop entitled “Large Cooperative Research Infrastructures: A Transatlantic Dialog in an Irish Perspective” at the University College Cork (UCC) to investigate whether Ireland should take a different tack with respect to investments in science.

At this workshop I joined an extraordinary group of ex-patriot Irish scientists* who had left Ireland some 30 years ago to establish their scientific careers in the US due to lack of opportunities in their homeland.

But they returned with a helping hand and optimism that there are significant scientific opportunities in which Ireland can take advantage, given its unique locality as an island nation with strong ties to both the United States and Europe.

Fred Dylla and Irish scientists
From the left: Fred Dylla, AIP; Peter Heffernan, Marine Institute; Minister Simon Coveney; Minister Seán Sherlock; and Colin Carlile, ESS.

Participants, about 40 in all, included well-known Irish scientists from its key universities and science centers, many with local expertise in marine sciences, climatology, and computation. Two ministers from the Irish government (representing science and marine endeavors), a representative from the Irish Higher Education Authority (whose agency co-sponsored the conference), and an official from the European Commission Directorate on Research Infrastructure kicked off the meeting. Government officials must temper their remarks about potential new, publicly funded ventures to fit within the current political or financial constraints. Ireland is just emerging from a very serious economic downturn and is one of the first European nations that had to swallow significant funding cuts in order to stabilize its banking system. Despite these austerity measures, science funding—although at a modest level compared to the national GDP—has been spared significant cuts.

The Irish Minister of State for Research and Innovation, Seán Sherlock, dedicated time to this conference before continuing on to Brussels for high-level negotiations on the next European Commission 7-year budget (Horizon 2020). Sherlock encouraged the generation of ideas for new science projects in Ireland that meet the government's established priorities and have near-term economic return.

Even though there is substantial evidence that investing in both basic and applied science has positive returns on investment, the payoff is rarely in the near term, i.e., within the term of a politician's tenure in office. It is not a typical consideration when establishing medium or large-sized scientific projects.

Irish scientists

From the left: Michael Murphy, President UCC; Richard Milner, MIT; Mary O'Regan, Tyndall (workshop organizer); Stephen Fahy, UCC; and Pat O'Shea, University of Maryland.

When most of the government officials cleared the UCC lecture room, attendees considered test cases on the evolution of science projects in other countries that required significant public spending on infrastructure. I draw your attention to two examples. One project involved a 25-year effort to site a major scientific user facility in Europe; another more modest effort involved siting one branch of a distributed European astronomical observatory in Ireland.

The big project, the European Spallation Source (ESS), is a 1.8 billion euro scientific user facility currently under construction in Lund, Sweden. Colin Carlile, the project's founding director, outlined the history of the project and parallels of similar projects. First, the establishment of a case. For the ESS, the case emerged from a series of workshops in the early 1990s. The scientific community reached the consensus that an upgrade to existing neutron scattering facilities in the UK, France, and Germany was necessary. Second, the seed money. Projects need support from a major funding agency, and simultaneously, team leaders must cultivate a significant fraction (25-30%) of the required resources from a host country. Both steps are predicated on having a committed champion to see the project through.

In the case of the ESS, Dr. Carlile persevered after a 25-year effort that saw him log over 650 flights across Europe and present more than 450 talks in support of the undertaking. (Carlile was just awarded the Royal Swedish Order of the Polar Star for bringing this impactful project to fruition.) Although modest about his essential role, he identified the need for a diplomatic partner who could help with the tooth-and-nail politics of negotiating with potential local hosts and soothing parties who would eventually lose out, but still need to be involved. Local hosting introduced significant delays for the ESS, and the horizon was often discouraging. But Carlile noted that this is not an unusual time scale for a major scientific facility, and was doubtful that the time scale could be speeded up for megaprojects such as an accelerator-based instrument, a major telescope, satellite, or robotic space probe.

My second example is also grounded in collaboration building—but at a different scale. Professor Peter Gallagher from Trinity College Dublin is a solar physicist who moved back to Ireland several years ago after a successful career in radio astronomy in the US. Gallagher has proposed building an observing station in Ireland as part of a network of interconnected low-frequency radio telescopes that would be distributed across the European continent.

The entire project is on a very different cost scale—150 million euros is the estimated construction budget for the continental network. Even though Gallagher is certain he can build the Irish station for about 1% of that cost, the sum is not extractable from the Irish funding agencies with their post-recession research prioritization. But this reality is not stopping Gallagher from getting the project off the ground. He has secured about 30% of the project budget from several Irish entrepreneurs and a donation of the required land. The land adjoins the estate of the former Third Earl of Rosse, who built what was once the world's largest telescope in the mid-19th century (the Leviathan telescope at Birr Castle). The donated real estate includes a former sheep shed, which his students are partially renovating as the eventual control room and visitors center. Gallagher and his students have a prototype antenna taking data, and they are touring the country telling both the public and academic colleagues about what the facility will help to accomplish. A distributed array of fairly low-tech antennae can help provide early-warning data on solar storms that can significantly influence communications and power transmissions on the earth.

There were some important takeaways for those interested in future project initiatives. Build a strong scientific case. The larger the project, the stronger the case has to be in order to involve more collaborators/partners to help move the project forward. A highly visible project champion is needed to lead the project from initial consensus building to completion. This champion may also need assistance to steer the project through arduous political paths. Finally, the project's potential benefits need to be promoted to all benefactors, including taxpayers, if they are to fit most of the bill.

Is Ireland in the position to deliver on frontier scientific projects and facilities on the international stage? I believe that the Irish gathering is poised to do just that. I left the workshop excited about their ideas and look forward to watching them develop new initiatives for a country with clear potential in the world of science.

* Richard Milner (MIT), Patrick O'Shea (University of Maryland), and Stephen Fahy (University College Cork).

Physics Resource Matters

Interacting with E-MRS

AIP Publishing attended the European Materials Research Society (E-MRS) meeting, held in Strasbourg’s Congress Center May 27-31, 2013. This conference is attended by an international group of scientists working on all aspects of materials science, having reached 3,000 participants this year.

Left: APL Materials Editor Judith MacManus-Driscoll discusses the journal with E-MRS participants. Right: APL Materials journal manager Stella Kafka with one of the winners of the “Wear the Pin to Win” competition.

The conference was an opportunity for AIP Publishing to promote the new journal, APL Materials, by hosting a number of events at our booth. Among the activities that took place, there was the popular “Wear the Pin to Win” competition, where participants were handed APL Materials pins and won Amazon cards when spotted wearing them during the conference. The journal’s editor, Professor Judith MacManus-Driscoll, was present and had the opportunity to discuss the journal’s scope and coverage with scientists working in the field. The editor also gave a short presentation on the journal at the E-MRS Exhibitor’s Workshop and answered questions from attendees.

Physics Resource Matters

Physics faculty in two-year colleges

During the 2011-12 academic year, the Statistical Research Center conducted a study of physics in two-year colleges (TYCs). Staff recently published the second report, highlighting findings about faculty members who teach physics in TYCs.

Almost 3,300 faculty members taught physics courses at two-year colleges during the 2011-12 academic year. According to US Department of Education data, about one-third (34%) of all instructional faculty in TYCs are full time. The study revealed that the profile of faculty members who teach physics differs: about half of these (51%) were employed in full-time positions. Also, 60% of the academic units where physics is housed had only one (or no) full-time faculty member teaching physics. The full report is available on the SRC website.

Number of Physics Faculty Members at Two-Year Colleges by status and Sex, 2011-12

PhysicMember Society Spotlight

AIP names Gigi Swartz as treasurer and CFO

Gigi SwartzAIP named Catherine “Gigi” Swartz as treasurer and CFO in June. Gigi joined AIP as the assistant treasurer in 1998 and was promoted to controller and assistant treasurer in 2000. She is responsible for all facets of finance and accounting for AIP and serves as the treasurer for the American Center for Physics. She has overseen many AIP goal-driven projects over the years, including upgrades to the financial accounting system, increased internal controls, and efficient policies and procedures. Gigi replaces Richard Baccante, who retired from AIP after 16 years of dedicated service.

PhysicMember Society Spotlight

Physics Today, July 2013 issue

PT cover July 2013Cover: This simulation of the brain's blood vessels and cortical tissue, created from magnetic resonance imaging data, exemplifies how physics contributes to 21st-century biology. Increasingly, the life-sciences community is recognizing that its students will need a multidisciplinary, quantitative education. Dawn Meredith and Joe Redish argue that the standard noncalculus introductory physics course doesn't serve life-sciences students well, and they offer ideas for better tailoring introductory physics to future biologists and medical professionals. (Photo by Lance Long, courtesy of the Electronic Visualization Laboratory, University of Illinois at Chicago.)

Coming Up

July 10

  • Staff birthday breakfasts (Melville and College Park)

July 13-17

  • AAPT Summer Meeting (Portland, OR)

July 16-18

  • CESSE Annual Meeting (Providence, RI)

July 20-24

  • ACA Annual Meeting (Honolulu, HI)