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Successful site visit

The tension in the audience was palpable when Prof. Jamie Gilmour stood up to summarize the conclusions reached by the members of the expert panel after their first PlanetS site visit – a two-day process held on May 19th and 20th, 2015 in Bern.

With a quiet, almost monotone voice the speaker of the expert panel thanked the PlanetS members for their big effort in presenting their program to the review panel. It took a little while of holding breath to realize that the conclusions presented were actually a very positive assessment of the achievements of  PlanetS so far. «It was a stimulating visit,» said Jamie Gilmour, Professor of Planetary Science at the University of Manchester, UK, adding that the panel was particularly impressed by the large number of PhD students and Postdocs present and enjoyed the lively discussions with the young researchers during poster sessions and coffee breaks.

The review panel: Simon Lilly, Katharina Fromm, Frank Sheffold, Debra Fischer, Larry Nittler, Ewine van Dishoeck, Jamie Gilmour, Doug Lin (from left to right), Photo: Guido Schwarz

The review panel: Simon Lilly, Katharina Fromm, Frank Sheffold, Debra Fischer, Larry Nittler, Ewine van Dishoeck, Jamie Gilmour, Doug Lin (from left to right), Photo: Guido Schwarz

The PlanetS management also received high marks for «an excellent job at setting things up» – a positive comment that makes Willy Benz happy: «I have a good feeling about the way the site visit went,» says the NCCR director, but he cautions: «We have to wait for the final detailed report before we can have a toast.» In the first oral summary the review panel didn’t express any specific criticism but identified some difficulties. There might be a challenge with integration, the experts mentioned. How to optimally combine solar system science with exoplanets research? While everyone is convinced that both can learn from each other, actually combining knowledge in specific research activities remains difficult but will need to be addressed before the next site visit. «We will come up with something interesting,» Willy Benz promises.

Getting women on board

Whereas there were no basic discussions about the presentations of the individual research projects, the Advancement of Women as part of the Academic Platform gave rise to some controversial thoughts in the audience: Do we need quotas, or faster recruitment processes to hire one of the few women on the market that are being chased by other universities as well? According to the expert panel, a proactive recruitment could make a real difference to getting women on board. And Willy Benz is convinced: «Given the current ratio of women scientists in the NCCR, we definitively need to do something on the gender issue – while quotas appear difficult, setting goals could be a possibility.»

A smile lit up the face of several board members of PlanetS when Jamie Gilmour addressed another complex topic: «The panel recognizes that technology transfer in planetary sciences is a difficult task,» he said and suggested that the NCCR should certainly be open to opportunities as they come along, but not do things that make little sense. «I appreciate his statement very much,» admits Willy Benz. «We shouldn’t do technology transfer just for the sake of it, but we really have to make sure that we are in a position to identify the promising avenues and then have the structure in place to exploit them.»

The communication team was also pleased with the positive feed back on its strategy and activities but was recommended not to forget social media which are perceived as important vectors of information by the panel members. Actually, a quick check showed that some of them have their own blog and/or a Facebook page.

In July the NCCR managements should receive the written review panel report and the feedbacks of the Swiss National Science Foundation. (bva)

The expert panel:
Debra Fischer, Professor of Astronomy at Yale University
Jamie Gilmour, Professor of Planetary Science at the University of Manchester
Doug Lin, Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics at University of California Observatories
Larry Nittler, Cosmochemist at the Carnegie Institution of Washington
Ewine van Dishoeck, Professor of Astronomy at Leiden University
Imke de Pater, Professor of Astronomy, Earth and Planetary Science at the University of California, Berkeley (not present in Bern)

From SNF:
Frank Sheffold, Professor of Physics, University of Fribourg
Katharina Fromm, Professor of Chemistry, University of Fribourg
Simon Lilly, Professor of Experimental Astrophysics, ETH Zurich

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NCCR PlanetS Site Visit, May 19th and 20th, 2015 in Bern. Photos: Guido Schwarz

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