Meeting with Chinese Physical Society lays ground for future collaboration

Image: Andrew Hendry

A delegation led by Professor Chen, vice-president of the Chinese Physical Society, visited the UK over 4–7 July to visit UK facilities such as JET, ISIS and Diamond with a focused day of discussions linked to future collaboration on the Wednesday at the IOP’s London offices.

Such meetings always provide a useful point of reflection on the UK’s place and influence in international science and indeed, and more importantly, trajectory, and to mirror that of China. I have been going to China since only 2009, when Beijing hosted the 10th International Conference on Nucleus–Nucleus Collisions – one of the major conferences in the field of nuclear physics. My impression at the time was of a nuclear physics community with great ambition yet to be fully realised.

Since those times I have had a chance to witness Chinese developments in nuclear energy and energy research more widely, travelling to China one or two times a year. There has been enormous and rapid growth in state-of-the-art facilities across the board, with China now setting the pace, and benchmark, for high quality research facilities that span the reach from applied to fundamental research. The scale of investment and ambition is unrivalled worldwide. This was strongly reinforced through the presentations to the joint CPS–IOP meeting.

It has clearly been recognised by China’s government that to drive economic growth in the longer term, and to secure a reputation for excellence and quality worldwide, pre-eminence in scientific endeavour is of fundamental importance. As judged by the quality of science produced by Chinese researchers, measured through publications, they are a community with a steep trajectory destined to overtake the more traditional western science base in the next five years – perhaps sooner. One would predict that in the future many of the major scientific discoveries will be made on the next generation of scientific facilities under construction, or proposed, in China.

The vision, commitment and organisation are impressive. The country has highlighted seven priority areas for scientific investment, and reviews proposals for the next generation on a five-year cycle. This drumbeat of development of high quality scientific facilities bodes well for the future. This contrasts with the flat-cash settlement for UK science and a lack of investment in internationally leading facilities in the UK.

This might ring the alarm bells for UK science – and indeed there is no place for complacency in any corner of the UK science community. However, it is important to be pragmatic and recognise that the scale of development in China is not only down to the vision held by the Chinese government, but the spending power provided by a population of more a billion and an economy that has been growing at around 8% a year. It has always been the case that collaboration is essential in large-scale science: witness CERN, ESA, and so on. Increasingly, collaboration with China is going to be essential.

The joint meeting provided many contact points for future research collaboration, and it was clear that much was already happening, particularly in the fields of light sources and high-energy physics. For my own part there was a commitment to build on the meeting by returning the visit particularly with visits to Beijing and Lanzhou, perhaps with the development of a joint UK–China Centre for Nuclear Physics.

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Martin Freer

Martin Freer

Martin Freer is head of physics and astronomy at the University of Birmingham, director of the Birmingham Energy Institute and former director of the Birmingham Centre for Nuclear Education and Research at the University of Birmingham. In 2015 he co-led the Birmingham Energy Institute Commission, chaired by Lord Teverson, examining Doing Cold Smarter, and in 2012 he led the Policy Commission, chaired by Lord Hunt, on the Future of Nuclear Energy in the UK. His main research area is the study of the structure of light nuclei, using nuclear reactions. This research is performed at international facilities worldwide. In addition, he is actively engaged in promoting research and educational programmes to support the UK’s investment in nuclear power generation. He received the Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel Prize, Humboldt Foundation, Germany in 2004 and the IOP’s Rutherford Medal in 2010.
Martin Freer
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