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More Opportunities for International Collaborations in Eastern Europe

Csaba Pál

Computational physicist Andrzej Sobolewski planned to do a postdoc abroad after finishing his Ph.D. Arrangements were made: He had landed a grant from the U.S. National Science Foundation and had a position lined up in the United States. But he was in Poland, and the year was 1981. Scientific collaborations were tightly controlled. Soon the communist government would seal Poland’s borders as martial law was imposed to quash pro-democracy movements. It was another 4 years before the political situation would relax enough that Sobolewski could go abroad for training. After much scrutiny, he was allowed to travel to the Technical University of Munich in the former West Germany. He spent a couple of months there each year over the next 5 years.

In Munich, Sobolewski had access to high-powered computers, a big change for someone who had done most of his "student work with pencils." But probably the greatest benefit of his time in Munich was his collaboration with theoretical chemist Wolfgang Domcke. Papers he published with Domcke helped him get a permanent position in Poland. With the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe 20 years ago--symbolized by the fall of the Berlin Wall--Sobolewski became free to pursue international collaborations without restrictions. His professional relationship with Domcke flourished, and over 25 years the two scientists have published a hundred papers together. Recently, the pair won a Copernicus Award from the Foundation for Polish Science.

Naturally, many scientists would prefer to make their careers at home, after spending some time in the West.

Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, as now, a proven way for Eastern European scientists to establish careers was to leave the East behind. Yet, the experience of Sobolewski and many other scientists demonstrates that the freedom and ability to collaborate can allow Eastern scientists to be successful at home. As countries in the former Eastern Bloc have shaken off their communist legacies and improved their research systems--often slowly and with mixed results--international connections have become much easier to establish. The ability to travel freely was, Sobolewski says, "the most important impact of destroying the Iron Curtain." Increasingly, Eastern scientists can also join formal international collaboration programs or tap into existing networks while staying at home. "Now the young people can really plan their scientific career," says Sobolewski, who is now a professor at the Polish Academy of Sciences' Institute of Physics in Warsaw.

International Ph.D. training

Today, many universities and research institutions in the former Eastern Bloc are training Ph.D. students in partnership with foreign research centers. For example, the UNESCO International Centre of Biodynamics in Bucharest offers master's-degree and Ph.D.-level training in collaboration with research groups based in Belgium, France, Germany, and Singapore, as well as Bucharest University.

Several funding agencies in Eastern Europe also aim to increase opportunities for Ph.D. students to achieve early international exposure. One such program is the International Ph.D. Projects Programme launched by the Foundation for Polish Science in 2008. Polish research departments that establish large international collaborations may now apply for funding sufficient to employ at least 10 Ph.D. students, pay for research expenses, and send the students to partner labs abroad for between 6 months and 2 years.

Andrzej Sobolewski

Andrzej Sobolewski

Courtesy of Andrzej Sobolewski

Some institutes also offer young researchers easy connections to the outside world. At the Mediterranean Institute for Life Sciences in Split, Croatia, for example, "several of the group leaders are abroad, but they're running their subgroups here in Split," says Bojan Žagrović, a young group leader in computational biophysics at the institute. Some new multinational research institutes are now also finding their way into Eastern Europe. Just last month, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Romania were together charged with building the pan-European Extreme Light Infrastructure, which is to host the most powerful laser source in the world by 2015.

Programs like these may be important, but they can help only a relatively small number of aspiring Eastern European scientists. Other students must take advantage of less-formal ways of gaining international exposure. Sobolewski recommends choosing an institution with strong links with the outside world, one that regularly holds seminars with invited speakers from outside the region.

Sobolewski also recommends selecting a supervisor with international connections and research grants that will support travel and exchange programs. Sobolewski and Domcke routinely send students to each other's lab for short stays.

The same is true in the lab of Csaba Pál (pictured at top), an evolutionary systems biologist who, after 6 years in the United Kingdom, Germany, and Italy, went back to his native Hungary with a Starting Grant from the European Research Council to set up his group at the Biological Research Center in Szeged. "We always encourage the Ph.D. students to visit other professors and other groups, either within the country or in the U.K. or in Germany, and give presentations with the definite aim that they would actually start collaborations with these guys," Pál says.

Any kind of educational context where international scientists are present and people have more time to talk--summer schools, seminars, or workshops, for example--are good places to make contact with potential mentors abroad, Žagrović says. "If at some conference you come up and ask a good question or just show serious interest, … people like that." Even e-mail can get the job done. "If you choose to approach a potential mentor by e-mail, be as professional as you can," Žagrović continues. "Put some effort into the application, send your CV [curriculum vitae], explain why you are interested in something, ... and then something could happen."

Joining international collaborations

Bojan Žagrović

Bojan Žagrović

Courtesy of Bojan Žagrović

Scientific collaborations are essential to researchers anywhere, but an extra incentive in Eastern European countries is greater access to funding. The legacy of communist times--in particular, the traditional underfunding of science and inefficient research system--puts Eastern European scientists on unequal footing with Western groups, Pál says. So don’t try to beat them; instead, join them. "The important thing is to build a collaboration ... instead of competing with some of the leading labs," Pál says.

In addition to running your independent projects, "find some specific questions which will be different and in the interest of some of the big guys" and work and apply for funding together. The European Union in particular aims to help scientists in less-well-off countries get on board by supporting only multinational research projects in its Framework Programme. Collaborations can also ease access to sophisticated equipment and complementary skills.

One additional challenge when doing research in a small former communist country like Croatia is that you have few colleagues in your discipline to interact with, Žagrović says. Collaborations he established with Stanford University and ETH Zurich in Switzerland have allowed Žagrović "to keep up with the trends, to really work with the smartest people, to get the know-how and help and also inspiration," he says.

Many Eastern European scientists who studied or worked abroad follow this same pattern, establishing collaborations with their former Western institutions. Scientists who lack such connections will have to seek scientific recognition through their research publications and conference talks.

Initially, stereotypes about Eastern Europe could get in the way. "If I give a lecture and people know nothing about me and it says that I'm in Hungary, they might say, 'Okay, he's not one of the big guys, obviously,' " Pál says. But such stereotypes will dissipate as you establish your international reputation. "If people know us from the work we did in the past, then it's not an issue any longer. It's just about the quality of work."

Twenty years after the wall

Credit: Andrzej Sobolewski

This week, Science and Science Careers examine how science has fared in Eastern Europe since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

In Science Careers:

- After the Fall of the Wall: Science Careers in Eastern Europe. After an initial exodus of their young scientists, Eastern European countries are seeing returns on a world without walls.

- On Going Home: Succeeding in Science in Eastern Europe. Three early-career scientists discuss returning to their native countries after spending time abroad.

- Science Training and Collaboration in Eastern Europe: Resources. These programs help researchers from Eastern Europe get training or experience abroad or bring researchers from elsewhere to the region.

In Science:

- Aufbau Ost: Max Planck's East German Experiment. The Max Planck Society's expansion into the former East Germany seeded top science into the region, but challenges remain in making sure the successes take root.

- Big Dreams Come True. An East Germany family of scientists reflects on life before and after communism.

Finding opportunities to go home

Greater research resources, job opportunities, and living conditions often lead talented Eastern European scientists to establish their careers in the West. But naturally, many scientists would prefer to make their careers at home, after spending some time in the West. Over the years, several pan-European programs have sprung up--such as the European Research Council's Starting Grants, the E.U. Marie Curie International Reintegration Grants, and EMBO Installation Grants from the European Molecular Biology Organization--that allow select scientists to set up well-equipped laboratories close to home. These programs remain few, but opportunities are increasing as national initiatives emerge, complementing the pan-European programs.

In Poland, the Foundation for Polish Science offers 15 2-year grants to returning postdocs as part of its HOMING Programme. The grants provide tax-free stipends and research money, which help returnees secure jobs back home and guarantee working conditions that are more in line with those offered in the West. The foundation also has entered into several international agreements whereby the grantee's former host institution puts in extra funding so that the grantee can visit to continue collaborations with his or her former colleagues, says its executive director Maciej Żylicz. The program encourages them to return to a place other than their Ph.D. institution, because "the foundation is also trying to be sure that those young scientists who are returning ... are free to work and free to collaborate," something that the remaining hierarchy in Polish academia doesn't always allow, Żylicz says.

In Croatia, Žagrović points to "several very successful and very positive influences" from the National Foundation for Science, Higher Education and Technological Development of the Republic of Croatia and the Unity Through Knowledge Fund. The two new agencies offer funding for scientists who want to return to Croatia to establish a lab. "The way they're doing it is really the way it should be: ... focusing on really excellent candidates" and not spreading the money too thin, Žagrović says.

Romania’s government recently launched a scheme for scientists with a foreign affiliation, including Romanian scientists, to spend 50% of their time at a Romanian host institution for 3 years, with funding of up to €1.5 million. The goal is "to help these people repatriate," says Daniel Funeriu, a young Romanian group leader in chemical biology at the Technical University of Munich and vice-president of the Romanian presidential commission for science and education. Funeriu calls the application forms "extremely unfriendly. .... Many people are put off by the bureaucratic requests," he says. "But it's a step forward."

More falling walls

Eastern countries are still in transition, and many see returning scientists as their best hope for overcoming their communist heritage and bringing their research up to par with Western countries. "They bring the knowledge which sometimes is not present ... and also techniques and the way of thinking," Żylicz says.

"The circulation of people, knowledge, information, and so on is much freer now than" it was during the Cold War, Žagrović says. Also, there now is an international convergence toward the American way of doing science, he adds. Today, in "most of the successful scientific groups, wherever you go, the language of communication is English, and they have two, three, four, five international students, postdocs, experts in the group." In the East as elsewhere, "science has become much, much more transnational," he continues. "It doesn't have national boundaries as much as it had before."

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