Why joining forces will future-proof European science

There has never been a more important time for scientists to strengthen collaboration and form international bonds between research communities across Europe. The coronavirus pandemic has driven scientists across the world to study the SARS-CoV-2 virus with the hope of creating effective treatments and a vaccine as soon as possible. This has demonstrated a great willingness to share findings and collaborate across borders – despite restricted travel – to help fight this global threat.

In this time, a partnership between Slovenia and the Institut Laue-Langevin (ILL), the world’s most powerful neutron science facility, has just become official. As of August 2020, the country is a scientific member of the ILL, opening the doors to the participation of Slovenian researchers in projects that look to tackle major scientific questions and global challenges such as climate change and coronavirus. This will allow Slovenian scientists to become part of the 1400 researchers per year that visit ILL to utilise the cutting-edge tools and world-class expertise to help them achieve their scientific goals – with neutrons providing unique insights on the atomic structure and dynamics of materials.

Forging global ties

The ILL, based in Grenoble, France, is an international research centre with some 40 state-of-the-art instruments that use neutrons to probe and explore matter. It is governed by three founding countries – the UK, France, and Germany – with now 11 member countries including Slovenia that contribute the remaining budget for running the facility. 

Slovenia’s membership has been in negotiations for just over a decade. As with many scientific collaborations, the talks began between a small number of scientists, and then reached ministries, discussing how the country could benefit from a partnership with ILL. The completion of the agreement, however, was delayed in part by the 2008 financial crisis, which hit many European countries – and their scientific budget – hard. It has taken a few years to get the negotiations and necessary R&D funding back on track. It is even more notable therefore, that during the economic crisis triggered by the coronavirus, Slovenia and ILL have sought to finalise the agreement and enable the scientific communities to progress world-leading research together.

As a research facility, ILL has always aimed to host and facilitate the highest quality, best-possible science. In an ideal world, this would be conducted by researchers from any institution or country around the globe. But like any large research infrastructure, the facility must operate like a business to be financially viable. The costs of operating the ILL, as well as carrying out essential maintenance and upgrades, make up more than 50% of the annual €90 million budget. It is therefore necessary that parties wanting to use the ILL must make long term commitments for financial support – and the vast majority of ‘beam time’ (use of the equipment for experiments) goes to the 14 associate and member countries.

A winning partnership

Once over the line, such a partnership is hugely advantageous to both parties. The Institut Laue Langevin’s mission is to conduct research of the highest scientific excellence and serve the European Research Area. Slovenia is a small country with a strong scientific landscape. Its researchers rank among the most prolific in Europe, and the country has an above-average number of PhD students. This active community will now be able to submit fresh and innovative projects to ILL, in fields from nuclear physics to drug development, enabling ILL’s instruments and staff to support some of the most exciting research in Europe.

It will also help Slovenia to further develop its scientific capabilities. The country has historically had limited participation in large-scale research infrastructures, and so membership of the ILL will provide unprecedented opportunity for scientists to access new sources of funding, unlock new prospects for early-career researchers, and take part in solving global scientific challenges.

For example, the facility is now running experiments looking into components of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, such as characterising the spike proteins responsible for penetrating and infiltrating human cells. Neutrons are a powerful tool for studying the life sciences as they are non-destructive, as well as uniquely sensitive to the lighter elements that make up so much of biological material. Other cutting-edge projects include identifying binding characteristics of cancer-related proteins, revealing the inner-workings of batteries to create more efficient energy materials, and studying art restoration methods to protect the world’s cultural heritage.

Diversifying research

For the ILL, forging a path for smaller countries such as Slovenia to become member states is an excellent mission. Driving conversations around how the local scientific communities and R&D professionals in Slovenia’s industries can access the ILL’s tools will lay the foundations for an upward course for the level of science and innovation in those countries.

Through the Horizon-supported FILL2030 programme, for example, ILL has previously allocated €500,000 to cover the costs of beam time for visiting researchers from potential, future member countries – including Norway, and Romania. These experiences of the ILL’s capabilities not only offer new analytical capabilities for the supported experiments, but also build testimonies for the value of a long-term partnership.

Negotiations around a new country joining the ILL are often led by a chosen research institution. In Slovenia’s case, this has been the National Institute of Chemistry (NIC), Ljubljana, an organisation that conducts and supports both basic and applied research, in academia and industry, in fields that are of importance to Slovenia and the world. Many core areas of study align with the ILL’s leading research, including materials science, life sciences, biotechnology, chemical engineering, structural and theoretical chemistry. This makes NIC an ideal partner for facilitating Slovenia’s membership, with an in-depth understanding of the country’s scientific landscape, as well as the expertise to ensure Slovenia makes optimal use of the ILL’s resources. 

Pushing the door open

The coronavirus pandemic has fuelled some of the most innovative research approaches and attitudes towards science ever seen – and among its many tragedies, may have increased awareness for the importance of a strong scientific foundation to protect against future threats. There is a willingness from large research infrastructures such as ILL, as well as from national governments, to ensure Europe and its component countries are well equipped to face the challenges of the coming decades.

At ILL and NIC we encourage flexibility and understanding when approaching new international cooperation, which may at first seem intimidating. However, the opportunity this provides for pioneering collaborations will be plain to see following the new generation of experiments at ILL with Slovenia’s research institutions integrated.

Written by Professor Mark Johnson, Scientific Director, Institut Laue-Langevin, and Professor Gregor Anderluh, Director of the National Institute of Chemistry, Slovenia

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