ICTP's Expanding Universe

Partner institutes spread ICTP’s mission around the world
ICTP's Expanding Universe

Hundreds of scientists visit and work at ICTP every year, and the number of applicants far outpaces the available space in conferences and programs. The difficulty of simply finding more space in Trieste is one of the main reasons that prevents ICTP from physically expanding, but that doesn't prevent its mission from reaching more and more scientists. A network of partner institutes built on the ICTP model is now spreading across the globe, serving local needs in the quest to build scientific capacity in every country. These regional centers, says Sandro Scandolo, Head of Scientific Programming and Outreach at ICTP "are starting to play the same role that ICTP has played globally, but at the regional level."

Back in the 1960s and 1970s, ICTP overcame political barriers to bring scientists together in a pre-globalization world. One of the first delegations of scientists allowed to leave China after the Cultural Revolution came to ICTP to begin to reintegrate back into the international scientific community. Now, countries like China, Brazil, and Iran have strong scientific communities of their own, and have started asking ICTP for help in establishing regional centers, independent institutes that would run on the ICTP model. "The geopolitical landscape has changed in recent years," says Scandolo. "Countries that used to be on the receiving side some time ago" of scientific aid, for which ICTP played a crucial supportive role in the past, "are now leaders, not only economically but also scientifically."

ICTP is one of the few institutes in the world with a dual mission of supporting excellent scientific research as well as building scientific capacity in developing countries. The success of that model was a goal for a community of Brazilian physicists. The already strong, well-known Brazilian physics community approached ICTP for assistance in establishing their own regional center, a mini-ICTP in Brazil. Under Director Fernando Quevedo's guidance, ICTP was happy to help.

From there, other regions and communities expressed interest in setting up their own local institutes modeled after ICTP. The overarching desire was for a meeting place for scientists, somewhere that could host accomplished researchers for international conferences, provide opportunities for scientific networking for regional scientists, and help prepare talented young local physicists for advanced studies. But each center, as it was established, tailored its goals to the needs of the local community. There are now three ICTP regional institutes, with two more scheduled to open soon, and each has a customized focus.

The Brazilian center, the International Center for Theoretical Physics - South American Institute for Fundamental Research (ICTP-SAIFR), was founded to provide an internationally collaborative research institute which hosted high-caliber conferences and a permanent research staff. Created in collaboration with the State University of Sao Paulo (UNESP) and the Sao Paulo Research Funding Agency (FAPESP), it focuses mainly on high-energy physics. This builds on an already existing strength in Brazilian science, and recent conference subjects include dark matter, gauge theory, and cosmology. Opened in November 2011, ICTP-SAIFR is about to celebrate its fifth anniversary.

The second center established, the Mesoamerican Center for Theoretical Physics (MCTP), sits in southern Mexico in the city of Tuxtla Gutiérrez, co-founded with the local university, Universidad Autónoma de Chiapas (UNACH). Focusing on Central American, the Caribbean, and Mexico, one of MCTP's main aims is to provide a preparatory master's program for talented local students interested in further study in physics. Whereas ICTP-SAIFR does little training outside of postdoctoral positions, MCTP's small permanent scientific staff focuses less on conferences and more on training the next generation of physicists. Both of these centers fill a local need.

Over in Turkey, the need was for a regional meeting point for scientists of the Eurasia region. Co-founded with the Izmir Institute of Technology, the ICTP- Eurasian Centre for Advanced Research doesn't yet have a permanent scientific staff or on-site training programs, but has hosted a steady stream of workshops and conferences with both experimentalists and theorists from a range of fields, from photonics to particle physics. 

Two other ICTP regional centers are scheduled to open soon, both with similar missions but different specific goals. An as-yet-unnamed, generously funded new center in China will be hosted on the campus of a new university being built for the Chinese Academy of Sciences, as a collaboration point for top researchers from across the world. China is already a research hotbed, but ICTP can supply a range of international connections to further that research, explains Scandolo. In Rwanda, immense support from that government has helped create the East African Institute of Fundamental Research (EAIFR), which will be hosted by the University of Kigali. EAIFR’s goal is to increase the number of masters and doctoral graduates in multiple areas of physics.

As all of the five centers have slightly different needs and aims, they all require different types of support from ICTP. Very little of the support is financial, with all of the centers operating thanks to long-term funding commitments from their local and national governments. Instead, a lot of ICTP's energy goes into helping recreate the ICTP model, focusing on scientific expertise paired with international networking. ICTP's Director Fernando Quevedo serves on each institute's steering committee, and senior staff at ICTP serve as advisors for both administrative and scientific matters. But support differs according to each center's needs. While the ICTP name alone is useful for obtaining funding in Brazil, Scandolo says, a more active schedule of visits from ICTP's scientific staff is initially planned in Rwanda, to help teach courses as the center's master's program gets off the ground. Overall, one of ICTP's main responsibilities to these regional centers is to help keep the quality of the research up to ICTP's standards of excellence.

Though independently run, these regional centers of excellence all have the same goal: to support and integrate regional scientific efforts. They facilitate collaboration, communication, and education, especially for scientists from developing countries in their region, activities that are exactly in line with ICTP's own goals. "It's a very nice way for ICTP to grow," says Scandolo.

--Kelsey Calhoun