Internationalization: Max Planck Tests the Korean Waters

2010-04-23 1,290

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Internationalization: Max Planck Tests the Korean Waters

Dennis Normile and Gretchen Vogel

In another sign of the Max Planck Society’s desire to extend its reach beyond Germany, it is negotiating with Pohang University of Science and Technology (POSTECH) to establish two joint research centers there. The South Korean side would like to see the centers evolve into a full-fledged Max Planck Institute. But because of some hard-learned lessons, Max Planck is being cautious about its commitment, and officials warn that the deal is not finalized. “We need to make sure that when Max Planck is on the label outside, that it’s really on the inside, too,” says Berthold Neizert, head of the Max Planck Society’s (MPG’s) international division.

The matchmaker behind the growing ties between MPG and South Korea is theoretical physicist Peter Fulde, a former director of the Max Planck Institute for the Physics of Complex Systems in Dresden. In 2007, Fulde became a POSTECH professor and president of the Asia Pacific Center for Theoretical Physics (APCTP), housed on the POSTECH campus. At APCTP, Fulde helped establish an independent program for junior research groups co-sponsored by Max Planck. As visits increased between MPG and POSTECH, the parties agreed in January 2009 to study setting up the centers.

If cleared by MPG’s scientific evaluation, which is expected to be completed in the next month, one of the centers would focus on attosecond spectroscopy, which uses lasers to study the dynamics of electrons. The other would add two new beamlines to a current $100 million upgrade to the Pohang Light Source to characterize and analyze new materials. POSTECH and MPG researchers are already cooperating in these areas, and “with the centers, there will be more of an impact,” says Fulde.

Both sides see advantages. “What we like is the tremendous drive [in Korea]. There is so much potential there,” says Neizert. “Korea is now trying to focus on creative research excellence, and this will be a very good opportunity for Korean groups to work hand in hand with top groups from Max Planck,” says Kim Seunghwan, a POSTECH physicist involved in setting up the centers.

Kim says they expect that the two centers will eventually have 100 Ph.D.-level researchers, including up to 30 newly recruited junior scientists, and $30 million in funding over 5 years. Details have not been finalized. Neizert says budget questions are still under discussion, but funding would come from both partners.

POSTECH had hoped to create a full MPG institute, but MPG held back. Fulde says that although South Korean and German scientists cooperate very effectively in the lab, the two countries have different approaches to managing research. In South Korea, “funding is in little boxes, so to speak, and [authorities] look into each box,” Fulde says. “In Germany, there is much more flexibility in the financing system.”

Such differences have tripped up some of Max Planck’s previous international endeavors, such as the Partner Institute for Computational Biology in Shanghai, a joint venture with the Chinese Academy of Sciences (Science, 9 November 2007, p. 902). After a rocky start, most of the management issues have now been smoothed out. “Shanghai is running really well, and the science is absolutely tops,” says Neizert. “But at the same time, we had to invest so much time and energy to make sure [the Max Planck] label fit.”
Neizert says that label means that no matter where in the world a Max Planck institute is located, “the governance needs to be like it is in Germany, with the scientific directors having full independence and long-term financial security.” Max Planck and POSTECH did discuss the idea of an institute. “But we felt it was simply premature,” Neizert says. Kim says they have agreed to evaluate results of this Max Planck Korea Initiative in 5 years.

Korea is the latest example of MPG’s push for international cooperation. The Max Planck Florida Institute in Jupiter opened in 2009, and a Max Planck Center focused on computer science was inaugurated in India in February. “Internationalization has been a central issue for [Max Planck president] Peter Gruss,” Neizert says. The society is in talks about similar collaborations with institutes and universities in at least three other countries.