Swiss photon community adopts formal structure

The Swiss Society for Photon Science (SSPh) was founded in 2019 for the purpose of coordinating discussions on the infrastructure needs of this cost-intensive field of research. It also seeks to represent the interests of researchers, especially in their interactions with government authorities. SERI regularly exchanges information with the SSPh and takes its inputs into account when formulating research policy.

The round structure in the foreground is the Swiss Light Source (SLS) at Paul Scherrer Institut in Villigen/Würenlingen. The SLS generates synchrotron light, which researchers use to investigate the properties of a wide variety of materials. Photo: Paul Scherrer Institute

Research with photons involves the generation, measurement and use of light. While this sounds rather dry, it encompasses more activities than one might expect. ‘Astronomers measure photons to learn about stars or exoplanets; chemists use photons to understand molecules; pharmacists use them to study the structure and effects of drugs. Biologists also use photons to observe cells, bacteria or viruses; and physicists use them to learn fundamental facts about nature. Other uses can be found in medicine, computer science and engineering,’ explains SSPh President, Prof. Thomas Feurer.

Photon science is therefore a broad area of research with many possible applications having profound social impact. Technical innovations that were originally developed for large photon research facilities (e.g. synchrotrons or lasers) are often transferred to industry. Infrastructure development is therefore a major driver of innovation. Moreover, the knowledge that users generate from such facilities is socially relevant. For example, nearly everyone has seen an image of the SARS-Cov-2 virus at least once over the past few months. Such images are usually created using cryoelectron microscopy or X-ray structure analysis - both technologies that came out of photon science.

Prof. Thomas Feurer is Director of the Institute of Applied Physics at the University of Bern, Co-Director of the National Centre of Competence in Research MUST (Molecular Ultrafast Science and Technology) and has served as Chairman of the Swiss Society for Photon Science since 2019. Photo: zVg
Dr. Mirjam Van Daalen has been Chief of Staff of the Photon Science Division of the Paul Scherrer Institute since 2017, Swiss delegate to the European Strategy Forum for Research Infrastructures (ESFRI) and Vice-Chair of the LEAPS Coordination Board. She was appointed as SSPh Secretary in 2019. Photo: zVg

Joining forces in pursuit of common interests
Simpler photon science infrastructures can be funded and developed by individual institutions alone. However, projects can quickly become complex and quite expensive. ‘Whenever photons with special properties need to be measured with a high degree of precision or produced in large numbers, the price tag for corresponding research infrastructures can rapidly reach CHF 100 million or more,’ explains Prof. Thomas Feurer. In order to successfully design, build, operate and, of course, fund such infrastructures, the various members of the research community have to join forces. The largest projects of this kind have given rise to international organisations, such as the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) in Grenoble or the European X-Ray Free-Electron Laser Facility (European XFEL) in Hamburg.

Initiatives such as SSPh at Swiss level or the League of European Accelerator-based Photon Sources (LEAPS) at international level (see box) are important. Their aim is to provide researchers with a means to coordinate their activities and exchange information. ‘In order for a research area to be successful, the full potential of its scientists must be recognised and the necessary infrastructure must be provided to them,’ states Prof. Thomas Feurer. The SSPh seeks to identify priority infrastructure projects for photon science. However, the SSPh is also relevant for researchers who are not entirely dependent on large-scale research infrastructures for their work. The SSPh provides information on processes taking place at national level and is able to weigh in on such things as specific roadmaps that the Swiss Academy of Sciences (SNAT) prepares for the federal government in collaboration with the research community. In this sense, the SSPh is also there to represent and give photon science researchers a voice - especially in dealings with the authorities. This also applies to dialogue with scientists in related research areas, such as particle accelerators.

SSPh membership is open to all researchers and research institutions active in this field. Membership applications can be submitted via the SSPh website.

Further Information

Doris Wohlfender, SERI
Scientific Advisor, International Research Organisations