When Jérôme Paméla took over on the first of January 2015, new born EUROfusion welcomed a Senior Expert in international fusion research as Chair of its General Assembly.
Now, the former Director of JET will pass the torch of leading EUROfusion’s highest decision-making body to his sucessor Ambrogio Fasoli. In this interview Jérôme Paméla shares his memories of the time when a cooperation agreement turned into the largest complementary European research programme ever.
What were your personal goals when taking up the Chair of EUROfusion’s General Assembly?
I was very enthusiastic when I took over from Sibylle Guenter who had done a wonderful job in preparing the transition from EFDA to EUROfusion which was a major step forward. I surely wanted to bring in the expertise from my time as Leader of the European Fusion Development Agreement (EFDA) and then as Director of Agence ITER France to help EUROfusion in its starting years. It was helpful to already know the European fusion community and all the laboratories quite well.
What was the main struggle in transitioning EFDA to EUROfusion?
Initially the laboratories were eager to secure their resources and wanted to avoid any significant cutback, which was legitimate. This resulted in tensions at the first General Assembly meetings in 2014/15. I think, this was just normal. Then as Chair I had to ensure that once all regulations were put in place and the main difficulties were smoothed, we would find time for addressing programmatic and strategic issues. This resulted in a new structure of our agenda with one section on strategy and programme.
What does a Chairman need to ensure smooth sailing for EUROfusion?
EUROfusion is eminently cooperative. The chairman is just the chairman. The work is done by the programme manager, the task force leaders, the project leaders, scientists and technicians, administrators – it’s all these people who make EUROfusion a success. The General Assembly has to give the right directions in order to foster the best decisions and facilitate the efficient achievements of our common objectives. It must as well correct things that could possibly go wrong.
One example during my chairmanship was the correction of the status of DEMO: it is now understood and accepted that DEMO is not in a conceptual design phase yet.
Why was that so important?
It was a misunderstanding which had to be cleared up in order to avoid making unachievable promises, to communicate transparently and, moreover, to properly organise the scientific and engineering work for the first demonstrational fusion power plant to come.
What does ‘conceptual design phase’ actually mean?
It means that all the main technical options are frozen, otherwise you cannot conduct a full conceptual study which requires integrating all systems and functions into a single design. There are still a lot of open options for DEMO, some challenging demonstrations and difficult choices to be made.
The correct definition of the status of our projects is very important in order not to overrate our research.
Have you been concerned regarding the image of fusion research?
Yes, that as well. Overselling and being over ambitious with our projects is technically dangerous and and can be politically fatal. Therefore, setting the status of DEMO right was essential.
The correct definition of the status of our projects is very important in order not to overrate our research.
Did the fusion community become more modest regarding public announcements and status definitions?
Maybe. The difficulties with the ITER schedule have made us necessarily more modest. We have to be aware of what is our image in the public and among stakeholders. We have to be realistic. Our key achievements and objectives have to be presented simply. This being said, our communication has developed extremely well over the past few years.
Have there been key changes in the governance of the programme?
Yes. The most important was the setting-up of a strong governance for the whole DEMO programme last year. It now includes, besides the design and Research and Develpment, other key elements such as the preparation of the neutron source DONES and the blanket development programme. Most importantly, together with EUROfusion, it involves all the relevant parties in Europe: Fusion For Energy as well as the two Directorate General Energy and Research and Innovation from the European Commission.
Bernard Bigot stated earlier that ‘EUROfusion is an excellent example of what Europe can do. What is your opinion on that?
This is absolutely true. The development of European cooperation over the past 20 years indeed proves that: from the “Associations” to EFDA in 2000 and in 2014 from EFDA to EUROfusion, each step has been a step towards stronger cooperation and reinforced coordination in a truly European spirit.
Remember that in 1998/99 the JET Joint Undertaking saw a massive crisis and had to be closed. However, the fusion governing bodies managed to turn this into a positive event: the European Fusion Development Agreement EFDA was concluded, which allowed us not only to keep the JET device running but also to use it in a much more cooperative manner, with a joint exploitation involving scientists from all European laboratories. This was a very big step, with people from all Europe travelling there and exploiting the machine together. This has finally fostered further integration of fusion research in Europe.
Because then we realised that other national experiments could be used in the same way. EUROfusion now exploits the very successful Medium Sized Tokamak (MST) Programme with devices in Switzerland, France, Germany and England. For me this is a paradigm of how Europe should work.
You just said, that EUROfusion’s MST programme is a paradigm of what Europe can be. What do you mean?
By complementing each other we can be very efficient. You keep your national specifics but you share them and let others participate. I also say, let’s keep the different education systems. When you put together a Swedish, an Italian, a French and a Spanish Researcher, you get four people with different approaches. But, in the end, their diversity makes them much more efficient together than four persons from a single nationality. Different cultures give us different skills and, above that, complementary approaches which help us addressing problems more powerfully.
What do you think is the first big challenge for your successor Ambrogio Fasoli?
In fact, each of the Chairs face a new challenge. Sibylle had to manage the transition from EFDA to EUROfusion, I had to ensure that EUROfusion would work smoothly, my successor Ambrogio Fasoli needs now to manage the transition from the European research programme Horizon2020 to the new one: Horizon Europe (FP9).
This requires a lot of work, which has indeed started since the beginning of this year and we already succeeded in presenting a number of ideas at the General Assembly including some set up for the DEMO activities. In the coming months all these ideas have to be integrated into a coherent and achievable programme. I mean achievable both technically and financially! The big challenge will be to get appropriate resources.
So you hope for an increased funding in the frame of FP9
Yes, especially to consolidate our support to ITER and to develop further for the DEMO activities.
EUROfusion is perceived as a “unique pool of expertise”. What is your advice to Ambrogio to make sure that the consortium keeps its good reputation?
We surely hold unique expertise in fusion. I don’t think there is any other partner in the world that combines so many scientific fields as Europe. On the other hand, we acknowledge some gaps and we have to work on them.
Our Training and Education programme is tremendously important. We must use our tools and therefore should be more directive in training. We need to bring more people into key areas: the breeding blanket programme requires new high quality scientists and engineers. It is the next frontier in the fusion programme. Hence, it should really collect lots of enthusiasm, resources and it is really surprising to me that we are a bit short of people there.
The difficulties with the ITER schedule have made us necessarily more modest. We have to be aware of what is our image in the public and among stakeholders. We have to be realistic.
Ambrogio Fasoli will take over the chair of EUROfusion’s ultimate decisive body, the General Assembly, on the first of January 2019.
Your challenge as the new chair presumably will be the transition to the new European framework programme Horizon Europe. How do you proceed?
We will continue on our successful path. The revised EUROfusion roadmap delivers the base for our research.
We need to ask for the resources that are adequate to our ambitions. We cannot be shy in claiming more funding, both community wise and locally. We must attract the best young talents to our global adventure, in synergy with each other.
What is it that you personally bring in?
The Chair’s personal views on EUROfusion developments have a relatively minor relevance, though they should be consistent with the consortium’s overall goals, if that’s what you mean.
I, personally, have a relatively long career in academia, in large and small groups and experiments. I believe, I can appreciate the advantages of large facilities but as well detailed academic research. Hence, I offer my services to make EUROfusion smoother, simpler and even more outstanding in the worldwide fusion research. I see myself as primus inter pares who works to generate consensus and then stands by the decisions taken by the General Assembly.
We cannot be shy in claiming more funding, both community wise and locally.
How can you ensure to continue supporting ITER when Brexit dawns and EUROfusion is about to lose one of its most important labs: the home of JET in Culham?
All being well, we will never lose such an important part of our community, and I am confident that this will not happen. I hope that the United Kingdom will be associated with Euratom and EUROfusion in a fair way. Just like Switzerland, for example. This can work out very well, as I can testify, being from Switzerland myself. I can confirm that we are fully integrated in all EUROfusion activities.
We have talked about future tasks. What will you take on board from your predecessor?
Jérôme always has always found the best the solution to satisfy most parties, using his federation skills. EUROfusion’s progress and its reputation are partly based on his work and of that of his predecessors. We need shape a coherent vision for what needs to be done along the lines that have been defined in the recent past to provide fusion energy to the world. Jérôme Pamela also fostered mutual trust, which is the fundament of our activities. We must take this up. Moreover, we need to develop goal oriented, long-term scientific projects without suffocating creativity.
What do you mean by that?
I want the space of research to be sheltered and I will do my best to protect it even further. We must remain open to original science and innovation. At the same time we have to proceed at full speed towards specific projects, for the preparation of ITER experimentation, for instance, or the design of DEMO.
And how will you achieve that?
Continuity is an element worth fighting for and this includes human resources as well as scientific and technology strategies. A sequence of short term projects is not the best way to proceed to DEMO. We need to ensure a continuous dialog and full transparency among the different stake holders, to maintain the course of our big ship.
Jérôme Pamela also fostered mutual trust, which is the fundament of our activities.
Does this also mean to increase the Training and Education activities?
Definitely. We need to foster new generations of scientists and engineers and include them in the developments for ITER and DEMO. We need to increase innovation and scientific originality via long-term mechanisms. This also means to simplify the organisation and the bureaucracy.
Where do you see EUROfusion positioning itself in the upcoming two years?
We can lead the world of fusion research… Seriously, we should not be too modest. EUROfusion is very, very strong now. I follow a synergistic and collegial approach also in strong exchange with the Programme Manager to make EUROfusion even stronger.
What’s the role of the Chairman of EUROfusion’s General Assembly?
The General Assembly elects its Chairman for two years. S/he leads the biannual meeting. Along with the Bureau of the General Assembly, he or she prepares the agenda. The main task of the Chair is to lead the discussion regarding scientific and financial issues and to foster decisions. Adding to that, he or she ensures a strategic role for the. The chair represents EUROfusion towards stakeholders and politicians in a firm collaboration with the consortium’s programme manager.