Forming independent islands

Robert Aymar: “Between cooperation and competition, we play on words. I use the term collaborative  competition to describe a situation in which, once the strategy has collectively been decided upon, we are not hung up on the fact of the earlier competition.” © CERN
Robert Aymar: “Between cooperation and competition, we play on words. I use the term collaborative competition to describe a situation in which, once the strategy has collectively been decided upon, we are not hung up on the fact of the earlier competition.”

Back in 1994 Robert Aymar was placed in charge of ITER (1), the giant international project researching nuclear fusion. He was later appointed Director-General of CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, a position he held from 2004 to 2008. This plasma physicist, with major scientific project experience, draws lessons for us from his various collaborations.

What are the issues that entice people like you to promote and organise scientific collaboration?

From the researcher’s perspective there are two issues, the relative importance of which may vary according to the topic, context and the general environment: the equality of members and desire for excellence in the work undertaken through collaboration. Individuals working together, of course, see each other as equals, and knowledge sharing leads to greater equality. By partnering with peers, they are better able to measure the quality of their own work and this encourages excellence.

At the political level, or when managing a scientific body, when the importance of a particular objective is recognised and a strategy is defined in order to achieve it, it is possible to suggest, to change the establishment of collaborations or simply to ensure their funding. The challenge is to make sure not to transform these incentives into purely bureaucratic management.

In human terms, what are the main challenges you have had to face in implementing the major projects you have managed?

When people who are going to work together come from very different cultures, one of course has to verify not only that they are professionally competent, but that they also personally support the common project. But the first real challenge is to ensure the absence of nationalism. The future partners need to share a common vision of the future and form an independent island, free of the prejudices or pre-existing hierarchical elements in their home environments. Without a set of shared core values like rigour, intellectual honesty, humility, openness and the famous thirst for knowledge, your collaboration will not work. All you will have is a juxtaposition of paid individuals, without the synergy necessary for the effective completion of the project.

Equally fundamental is a common strategy. In any joint venture, not everyone has the same level of responsibility, age or imagination; in short, not everyone carries the same weight. But ultimately the effectiveness of the project will be measured by the quality of the link between different project members. The actual physical distance between the workstations is irrelevant, provided there are sufficient faceto- face contacts. During my career I have come across individuals who had never personally committed to this common strategy. The simplest thing then is to remove them.

Aren’t a lack of nationalism and shared strategy unique to particle physics, where collaboration is culturally rooted in the very special history of atomic research?

On the contrary, I believe these attributes are prerequisites for any international scientific collaboration to succeed. They provided the critical basis for the Convention that led to the creation of CERN in 1954. Today, in an experiment such as the LHC (Large Hadron Collider), we have 2 000 researchers working in a democratic, non-hierarchical framework, where leaders are elected.

How do they manage to spend 20 years preparing an experiment and another 20 years running it? This is because everyone agrees to explore everyone else’s ideas, with a single criterion which is in everyone’s common interest: the greatest likelihood of the success of the experiment. There is an initial competition for ideas, but then collaboration carries the day with everyone signing up to a collective decision to move towards a single strategy.

Isn’t there the danger of this competition proving demeaning or demotivating for researchers who have invested heavily and whose work is ultimately not selected?

Demeaning, I do not think so. If, in a given framework, democratic judgement gives different rankings to the various proposals, we are not talking of value judgements where one idea is good and the other bad. Between competition and collaboration, we are in fact playing with words, because the contribution of each member is to critically analyse all proposals. Personally, I use the term ‘collaborative competition’ to describe a situation in which, once the strategy has been collectively decided upon, we are not hung up on the earlier competition. This process takes time, but it generates synergies that increase the efficiency of research. It’s very different from the law of the market where the winner crushes the loser.

Sometimes, a minority among those who fiercely support a vision that is ultimately not accepted may become demotivated. They will leave the project and join another collaborative venture. We should not give the idea that all projects will last forever; competition also exists in overall funding.

Does scientific collaboration change in nature when it crosses the traditional divide between basic and applied research?

If the objective is the market, which presupposes profit from success associated with a minimum of technical secrets, we leave behind the framework of scientific collaboration to which I have just referred. The two approaches are totally different in nature. Take for example the deciphering of the genome. For some, it is a heritage of humanity, the understanding of it is simply knowledge. For others, there is the prospect of bringing certain applications to market for financial gain. Two approaches which are, to say the least, irreconcilable.

There are, however, particularly in Europe, many industrialists who, starting out from the results of basic research, team up with researchers in a framework of technology transfer to develop or improve a process that could generate profits. If they attach to this collaboration values that go beyond mere economic self-interest, this is not, totally in my view, a scientific collaboration, but rather a desire to continue a strategy that has already begun and bring discipline and innovation to it. This collaboration is still well away from the frantic race for profit, which, as the phenomenon of stock market bubbles shows, often prevails on the market.

Does the European Research Area offer a propitious framework for scientific collaboration?

The history and culture of Europe are closely linked to the development of science, at least since the 17th century. Training for the benefit of all is of very good quality in this part of the world, with publicly funded schools and universities. States have developed here through power struggles. This has created a diversity of values and approaches which are now an asset for European science. But the division of Europe into many small countries, each with the same attributes of sovereignty, is also an obstacle. Scientific issues have reached a level of complexity where it has become necessary to share analysis and varied skills in diversified initiatives involving large numbers of people.

In each subject area, effectiveness calls for a critical mass, the size of which varies depending on the discipline, the technology involved and the particular project. In practice, this critical mass is inaccessible to most of our countries, which are too small to have the sufficient human or financial resources to tackle as wide a range of topics as a much larger country. To achieve the necessary critical mass, the only effective solution in Europe lies in effective cross-border collaboration. This comes easier to scientists than to politicians.

Interview by Sandrine Dewez

  1. See “ITER emerges from the Earth”, Research*eu 61.