News from the tower of Babel

This morning, I had a news release from the US National Science Foundation in my inbox: a new ice coring record was set in Greenland this season. That is good news in itself, since it will give climate researchers a lot of data on past periods of rapid warming, which hopefully can give us a clue as to what might happen next in this big experiment we are part of.

But that aspect of the news release alone was not amazing to me – despite the fact that I have an inkling of the logistics, meetings and preparations that must have gone into this. What’s amazing is that they pulled this of with a team of people from 14 different countries… it just so happens that the European XFEL also involves 14 countries.

It’s two months and a day now that I have been involved with this project. In this short amount of time, I have already experienced a lot of excitement: in July, Prime Minister Putin finally signed the documents needed to release the funds from Russia – with a contribution of a few hundred million Euro, Russia is the second largest shareholder in the project. This lead to a date being set for a ‘cross-checking conference’ at which the five different language versions will be compared and initialed – which in turn frees the way for the international Convention on the construction of the facility to be signed; probably later this year. This also means that a limited liability company under German law can be founded, which is the chosen business model for the project since it allows the different countries’ contributions to be distributed formally as shares.

By the way, you read correctly up there – the Convention is, for now, being translated into and signed in six different language versions: English, German, French, Russian, Italian and Spanish. Although this is nothing compared to the 23 official languages of the EU, this can be tricky because of subtle differences in the languages themselves as well as in the way certain terminology is used. It is also tricky because of the different ways the meaning of a word in other languages may be interpreted – for example, the word ‘may’ may have been supposed to mean ‘it is possible, go ahead’ – but could be read as ‘we might say no if you ask’.

I learned what seems to be an open secret among diplomats during a day-long meeting with representatives from most of the 14 countries on Tuesday: if someone has to ask for clarification in a case like that, the trust among the different parties is essentially broken: at this international level, there has to be a certain amount of confidence that each of the partners will do their part, that they will do what they said they would do.

International collaborations – the generous sharing of funds and expertise – are the only way to go for projects on a scale like that of the European XFEL. Even big ‘national’ projects are impossible without the participation of scientists, engineers and students from different countries.

I have come into this project just as things seem to be falling into place – but no time to rest: this is only the beginning of it and the bulk of the work is ahead of us. Ok, what we are doing is a tad bigger than drilling a buch of ice cores – but the Greenland story is encouraging news nonetheless.

This post was first published on Nature Network, which has since been discontinued. The post has been moved to SciLogs.

About steffi suhr

Once upon a time, I was an enthusiastic and hopeful biological oceanographer who did a bunch of work in the Antarctic. I was alternately wearing labcoats or extreme weather clothing and hard hats, but have long since swapped survival suits for dress suits and do science management, currently as the BioMedBridges project manager at the European Bioinformatics Institute. I still like to use my brain. I'm a German serial expat, currently - again - living in the UK.
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4 Responses to News from the tower of Babel

  1. Richard Wintle says:

    And I thought we had problems here in Canada, with two official languages.
    That ice-coring record is kind of (sorry sorry sorry) cool as well. Interesting factoid – some algorithms used to detect copy-number variation in intensity data from genome-wide microarrays are derived from approaches used to identify density changes in core samples (circular binary segmentation, for the masochists enthusiasts in the audience). 100% fact. Irrelevant fact, but 100% fact nonetheless.

  2. steffi suhr says:

    Thank you, Richard. This blog welcomes facts, be they irrelevant or not. And yes, that ice-coring record is cool – while the European x-ray free-electron laser is simply hot.

  3. Richard Wintle says:


  4. steffi suhr says:


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