A network for the Balkans

20 November 2013

Bringing physicists together in Southeast Europe.

Julius Wess

From 1945 to 1990, the development of scientific educational and research capacities in physics in the Balkans followed the political and economic courses of the relevant countries. Yugoslavia and the six republics in its federation developed ties – to a greater or lesser extent – with both the East and the West, while Romania and Bulgaria became well integrated into the scientific system of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc. In these countries and in the entire Balkans, the period was marked by a significant increase in the number of scientists – primarily in the field of physics – and scientific publications. There was also a substantial rise in the level of university education and scientific infrastructure, which had been lower before the Second World War or limited to a small number of exceptional yet isolated individuals or smaller institutions. Greece and Turkey were connected mainly to the US or Western Europe, while Albania was in self-imposed isolation for much of this period.

The years following 1990 brought significant changes, which were particularly dramatic and negative for the countries that were created after the break-up of Yugoslavia. The wars waged on the territory of the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and enormous economic problems resulted in the devastation of scientific capacities, the leaving of mainly young physicists and the stopping of many programmes and once-traditional scientific meetings – in particular the world-renowned “Adriatic meetings”. Less dramatic but more significant changes took place in Bulgaria, Romania and even Moldavia and the Ukraine – countries on the periphery of the Balkans but in the same neighbourhood. The number and quality of students graduating in physics, as well as financial investment in all forms of scientific educational work, plummeted. The number of researchers and PhD students, in particular, dropped so significantly in the majority of university centres that the critical mass necessary for teaching at graduate level as well as for teamwork and competitiveness was lost. The remaining young research groups and students – some only 100 km apart – had no form of communication, exchange or co-operation. European integration – if it began at all – proceeded slowly, while many previously established ties were severed.

Wess and WIGV

The origins of the Southeastern European Network in Mathematical and Theoretical Physics (SEENET-MTP) are linked to Julius Wess and his initiative “Wissenschaftler in globaler Verantwortung” (WIGV) – “Scientists in global responsibility” – launched in 1999 (Möller 2012). Wess was professor at the Ludwig Maximilian University (LMU) of Munich and director of the Max Planck Institute (MPI) for Physics in Munich. Like most people in Europe, he deplored the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s and this eventually turned into a resolve to engage hands-on in re-establishing scientific co-operation with the scientists of former Yugoslavia during the “Triangle meeting” in Zagreb in 1999. Wess collected information about the remaining links between scientists in the new countries of the former Yugoslavia and the rest of the world, and especially between the former Yugoslav countries. He also found out about the institutional and economic situation of the universities and institutes.

The first network meeting of WIGV was organized in Maribor, Slovenia, in May 2000

The first network meeting of WIGV was organized in Maribor, Slovenia, in May 2000. It was followed by activities such as the Eighth Adriatic Meeting in Dubrovnik, Croatia, and the First German-Serbian School in Modern Mathematical Physics in Soko Banja, Serbia, in 2001. Three postdoc positions and many short-term fellowships were established in Munich, supported by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), the German Research Foundation (DFG) and the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). The biggest and, in a sense, the most important action was the Scientific Information Network for South East Europe (SINSEE/SINYU) project to establish new high-speed fibre capacity across large distances, especially for the scientific community, with SINYU covering the region of the former Yugoslavia.

Balkan Workshop 2003

Unfortunately, between the summers of 2002 and 2003 the WIGV initiative lost its momentum. Many of the financial ad-hoc instruments created for the region ended during this time. Wess also needed to pause because of serious health problems in 2003. However, between October 2000 and December 2002 the idea of a “southeastern European” rather than “Yugoslav” network in mathematical and theoretical physics emerged and evolved in discussions between Wess, myself and other colleagues who visited Munich or took part in numerous meetings supported by WIGV.

Our impression was that a critical mass of students and researchers in the region of the former Yugoslavia could not be achieved and that a larger context should be attempted – the Balkans. In addition to the former Yugoslavia, this would include Bulgaria, Greece, Romania, Turkey, etc. We hoped that this kind of approach would have a political as well as scientific dimension, alongside other benefits. Agreement was quickly reached and the name Southeastern European Network in Mathematical and Theoretical Physics (SEENET-MTP) was created. With the personal recommendations of Wess, I visited CERN, the International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP), the UNESCO headquarters in Paris and the UNESCO Venice office to promote the idea. In the course of discussions, the foundations were laid for support for the future network.

The SEENET-MTP Network

The founding meeting of the network was set up as a workshop – the Balkan Workshop (BW2003) on Mathematical, Theoretical and Phenomenological Challenges Beyond the Standard Model, with Perspectives of Balkans collaboration – that was held as a satellite meeting of the Fifth General Conference of the Balkan Physical Union, in Vrnjačka Banja, Serbia, in August 2003. This made it possible to have a regional meeting, with representatives from nearly all of the relevant countries present. Unlike the First German–Serbian School and some other actions, Germany’s contribution to the budget of BW2003 was no more than a third. The organization of the workshop was not without some controversy. It was a difficult but important lesson in the writing of applications for funding, proposals for projects and their implementation. The meeting, which had excellent lecturers, ended with the ratification of a letter of intent, followed by the election of myself as co-ordinator of the Network and Wess as co-ordinator of the Scientific-Advisory Committee (SAC) for the network (Djordjević 2012).

The most complex meeting of the network was the Balkan Summer Institute (BSI2011) with 180 participants and four associated events

While singling out the role of individuals might seem disproportionate, it is a pleasure to underline the role of Boyka Aneva in motivating colleagues from Sofia, Mihai Visinescu for those from Romania, Goran Senjanović of ICTP for his service as co-ordinator of the Network SAC (2008–2013) and the first and the current presidents of the Representative Committee of the SEENET-MTP Network, Radu Constantinescu of Craiova (2009–2013) and Dumitru Vulcanov of Timisoara, respectively. Starting in 2003 with 40 members and three nodes in Niš, Sofia and Bucharest, the network has grown steadily to its current size, now covering almost all of the countries in the Southeastern European region plus Ukraine. The Balkan Workshops series is an important part of the SEENET-MTP programme (see box). The most complex meeting of the network was the Balkan Summer Institute (BSI2011) with 180 participants and four associated events.

The main goals of the network and its activities and results can be summarized as follows.

To organize scientific and research activities in the region and the improvement of interregional collaboration through networking, the organization of scientific events and mobility programmes. The network has organized 15 scientific meetings (schools and workshops) and supported an additional 10 events. Around 1000 researchers and students have taken part in these meetings. Through UNESCO projects, followed by the ICTP project “Cosmology and Strings” PRJ-09, there have been more than 200 researcher and student exchanges in the region, about 150 seminars and 100 joint scientific papers. In co-operation with leading publishers both in the region and the rest of the world, the network has published numerous proceedings, topical journal issues and two monographs. It has also implemented 15 projects, mainly supported by UNESCO, ICTP and German foundations.

Balkan Workshop 2013

To promote the exchange of students and encourage communication between gifted pupils motivated towards natural sciences and their high schools. Three meetings and contests in the “Science and society” framework have been organized in Romania with 100 high-school pupils and undergraduate students. The network was a permanent supporter and driving force in establishing and supporting the first class for gifted high-school pupils in Niš, Serbia, and its networking with similar programmes.

To create a database as the foundation for an up-to-date overview of results obtained by different research organizations and, through this, the institutional capacity-building in physics and mathematics. The SEENET-MTP office in Niš, established in 2009, in co-operation with the University of Craiova and UNESCO Venice office, set up the project “Map of Excellence in Physics and Mathematics in SEE – the SEE MP e-Survey Project”. It has collected a full set of data on 40 leading institutions in physics and mathematics in seven Balkan countries.

BW2013: 10 years of the network

This year’s Balkan workshop – BW2013 Beyond the Standard Models – was held on 25–29 April in Vrnjačka Banja, Serbia, just like the first one. The meeting also provided an opportunity to mark 10 years of the network, which now consists of 20 institutions from 11 countries in the region and has 14 partner institutions and more than 350 individual members from around the world. It was organized by the Faculty of Science and Mathematics and SEENET-MTP office, Niš, in co-operation with the CERN Theory Group, the International School for Advanced Studies (SISSA) and ICTP, with the Physical Society Niš as local co-organizer.

The workshop offered a platform for discussions on three topics: beyond the Standard Model, everyday practice in particle physics and cosmology, and regional and interregional co-operation in science and education. The first two days were devoted to purely scientific problems, including new trends in particle and astroparticle physics: theory and phenomenology, cosmology (classical and quantum, inflation, dark matter and dark energy), quantum gravity and extra dimensions, strings, and non-commutative and non-archimedean quantum models. It was an opportunity to gather together leading experts in physics and students from the EU and Eastern Europe to discuss these topics. The third day was organized as a series of round tables on building sustainable knowledge-based societies, with a few invited lecturers and moderators from the Central European Initiative (CEI), UNESCO, the European Physical Society (EPS) etc.

Participants at the Balkan Workshop 2013

In total, 78 participants from 25 countries came to the events. Around 30 invited scientific talks, 15 panel presentations and several posters were presented. The EPS president John Dudley, EPS-CEI chair Goran Djordjević and former EPS presidents Macie Kolwas and Norbert Kroó were among the panellists. Mario Scalet (UNESCO Venice), Fernando Quevedo (ICTP), Luis Álvarez-Gaume, Ignatios Antoniadis and John Ellis (CERN), Alexei Morozov (ITEP, Moscow), Guido Martinelli (SISSA), Radomir Žikić (Ministry of Education and Science, Serbia) and others contributed greatly to the overall discussion and decisions made towards new projects. Dejan Stojković (SUNY at Buffalo) was unable to attend but has contributed a great deal as lecturer, adviser and guest editor in many network activities. Under the aegis and with the support of the EPS, the first meeting of the EPS Committee of European Integration (EPS-CEI) took place during the workshop and the first ad-hoc consortium based on the SEENET-MTP experience for future EU projects established.

SEENET-MTP: main network meetings

• BW2003 Workshop, Vrnjačka Banja, Serbia
• BW2005 Workshop, Vrnjačka Banja, Serbia
• MMP2006 School, Sofia, Bulgaria
• BW2007 Workshop, Kladovo, Serbia
• MMP2008 School, Varna, Bulgaria
• SSSCP2009 School, Belgrade-Niš, Serbia
• EBES2010 Conference, Niš, Serbia
• QFTHS2010 School and Workshop, Calimanesti, Romania
• BSI2011 Summer Institute, Donji Milanovac, Serbia
• QFTHS2012 School and Workshop, Craiova, Romania
• BW2013 Workshop, Vrnjačka Banja, Serbia

Despite the unexpected success of the SEENET-MTP initiative, its future faces challenges: to provide a mid-term and long-term financial base through EU funds, to prove its ability to contribute to current main lines of research, to extend the meeting’s activities from Bulgaria, Romania and Serbia and to other countries in the network, to organize a more self-connected and permanent training programme through topical one-week seminars for masters and PhD students in its nodes and, possibly in the future, joint masters or PhD programmes.

SEENET-MTP and physicists in the SEE region still need a partnership with leading institutions, organizations and individuals, primarily from Europe. In addition to LMU/MPI, the role of which was crucial in the period 2000–2009, and the long-term partners UNESCO and ICTP, the most promising supporters should be EPS, SISSA and CEI, as well as the most supportive one in the past few years – CERN and its Theory Group.

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