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Building Balkan bridges in theory

9 September 2019

Broader European support is vital to preserve and build capacity in fundamental physics in the region of former Yugoslavia and the Balkans, argues Goran Djordjevic.

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Twenty years ago, distinguished Austrian theorist and co-inventor of supersymmetric quantum field theory, Julius Wess, concluded that something must be done to revitalise science in former Yugoslavia. One of the 12 founding members of CERN, Yugoslavia was a middle-sized European country with corresponding moderate activities in high-energy physics. Its breakup resulted in a dramatic deterioration of conditions for science, the loss of connections and an overwhelming sense of isolation inside the region.

Wess strongly believed that science is a powerful means to influence the development of society. From 1999 to 2003, his initiative “Wissenschaftler in Global Verantwortung” (WIGV), which translates to “Scientists in Global Responsibility”, provided a platform to connect and support individual researchers, groups and institutions with a focus on former Yugoslavia. Much was achieved during this short time, such as the granting of scholarships in mathematics and theoretical physics, a revival of interrupted schools and conferences and the modernisation of intranet at several Serbian institutions. Funding, initially from Germany, provided an opportunity to researchers from former Yugoslavia to establish contacts and cooperation with many excellent researchers from all around the world.

Goran Djordjevic

It was natural to expand the WIGV initiative to bridge the gap between southeastern and the rest of Europe. Countries to the east and south of Yugoslavia – such as Bulgaria, Greece, Romania and Turkey – have a reasonably strong presence in high-energy physics. On the other hand, they share some similar economic and scientific problems, with many research groups facing insufficient financing, isolation and lacking critical mass.

Therefore, the participants of the UNESCO-sponsored Balkan Workshop 2003 held in Serbia created the southeastern European Network in Mathematical and Theoretical Physics (SEENET-MTP). The network has since grown to include 16 full and seven associated member institutions from 11 countries, and more than 450 individual members. There are also 13 partner institutions worldwide. During its 15 years SEENET-MTP has undertaken: more than 18 projects, mostly concerning mobility and training; 30 conferences, workshops and schools; more than 300 researcher and student exchanges and fellowships; and more than 250 joint papers. Following initial support from CERN’s theory department, a formal collaboration agreement resulted in the joint CERN–SEENET-MTP PhD Training Program with at least 80 students taking part in the first cycle from 2015 to 2018. Vital support also came from the European Physical Society and ICTP Trieste.

In total, the investment provided for SEENET-MTP from international funds, its members, national funds and in-kind support amounts to almost €1 million. It is quite an achievement – if we consider that the results rely mostly on the efforts and good will of many individuals – but it is still much less than an average “EU project”. This raises important questions about maintaining SEENET-MTP’s efforts. 

SEENET-MTP has “thermalised” the system – the network has made people in the region interact. Yet today, we find ourselves asking similar questions that its founders asked themselves 15 years ago. Is there something specific to southeast Europe that deserves special treatment? Is there something specific in high-energy theoretical physics that merits specific funding? Is the financing of high-energy physics primarily a responsibility of governments? And, if so, can Balkan countries do it properly?

Is there something specific to southeast Europe that deserves special treatment?

If the answers to the first three questions are “yes”, and to the last one “no”, a pressing issue concerns extra funding and the role of the European Union (EU). In the six or seven countries in the region that are not yet members of the EU (and which have a very unclear perspective about joining), we need to work out how to fund fundamental sciences in a similar way that Poland, Czech Republic, or “older” EU countries do. At the same time, it is important to consider the future roles of non-EU institutions such as CERN and the ICTP. The recent accession of Serbia to CERN as a full member state, and with Croatia and Slovenia in the process of joining, are promising signs towards closer European integration.

Networking is the most natural and promising auxiliary mechanism to preserve and build local capacity in fundamental physics in the region. The next SEENET Scientific-Advisory Committee and its Council meeting will take place at ICTP Trieste from 20 to 23 October. It will be the right place, if not the last possibility, to transfer the initial ideas and achieved results to an EU-supported project to bolster best practice in the Balkans.

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