Contribution to the celebration of the twentieth anniversary of ITIMS

by J.J.M. Franse

Former chairman of the International Advisory Board

J.J.M. FranseThe start  of ITIMS has to be sought at the end of the eighties of last century. During the first international workshop on materials science, organised in Hanoi from October 15-26, 1990, a recommendation was formulated to start an institute for material science in Vietnam with financial support from the Vietnamese and Dutch governments. Two years before, the Board of the University of Amsterdam strongly urged the scientists of this university to enlarge the scope of the VH collaboration with Vietnam towards an international network of scientists. It happened that I met Than Duc Hien in 1988 at a symposium near Warsaw organised by the Polish Academy of Science under the title “Magnetism and Magnetic Materials”. The symposium was attended by a large group of scientists from different countries all over the world. On that occasion, Hien and I concluded that, after more than ten years of co-operation between the universities of Amsterdam and Hanoi, it would be appropriate to organise a meeting of comparable stature in Vietnam. We discussed possibilities for inviting well-known scientists to Vietnam and for collecting the necessary funds. Via the network for magnetism research, set up and financed by the European Commission, we saw possibilities to approach a group of European scientists that we thought could be interested in participating in such a symposium.

With these plans in mind we returned to our home institutes and discussed the matter with our colleagues and we both felt supported. From Vietnamese side, the National Centre for Scientific Research and the University of Hanoi took up this initiative. The University of Amsterdam by means of the Van der Waals – Zeeman Institute was also willing  to participate in the organisation of this meeting. Highly appreciated support from France and Sweden was obtained in addition. Sponsors were found in The Netherlands, in France, Sweden and Italy. Also the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization was willing to act as sponsor for this meeting. And so it happened. There was a lot of positive response to our invitation to participate in the meeting in Hanoi. In October 1990, a symposium took place under the title “International Workshop on Material Science”. The two main topics of this workshop were in line of the research tradition in Vietnam and were chosen to be: “Semiconductor Physics” and  “Physics of Magnetism and Magnetic Materials”.  Some twenty scientists from abroad  came to Vietnam and presented tutorial talks on recent results of their research programmes. These talks were collected in a book  published by World Scientific in Singapore.

For many of the Vietnamese scientists participating in this workshop it was the first acquaintance with the international science community. By means of the poster sessions, at which the Vietnamese scientists presented the results of their research activities, contacts between the Vietnamese scientists and the visitors from abroad were established.

I have a special memory to the closing session of that meeting during which some general conclusions were drawn with respect  to the Vietnamese position in academic research:

  • Fundamental research is essential for the higher education system; research programmes have to be developed at universities;
  • Vietnamese scientists should attend international conferences and publish in international journals;
  • Long-term co-operation with research institutes abroad are highly desirable;
  • Micro-magnetism, magnetic recording, thin films and surface magnetism are nearly absent in Vietnam; scientists should be sent abroad to get the necessary training in these research area’s;
  • A training institute of international level should be established in Vietnam.

This last point was taken up by the Universities of Amsterdam and Twente in The Netherlands and by the University of Hanoi as well as the Polytechnical University. After many consultations and negotiations, the result was the establishment of an international training institute for materials science in 1992, ITIMS. The Dutch Ministry for Development Cooperation as well as the Vietnamese Government supplied the necessary funding.

It was the strong wish of NUFFIC (Netherlands University Foundation For International Co-operation) that the ITIMS project  was supervised by an international board of experienced scientists. This board fulfilled its task with great enthusiasm and devotion under the title “International Advisory Board” (IAB). In the starting years of the project, the Board considered it as its responsibility to design an up-to-date curriculum for a master-degree programme in material science that could meet the international standards. In regular (yearly and two-years) meetings that programme came into development. From a solid-state-physics oriented programmes in the first years, the programme developed in later years into a more application oriented programme. The first master-degree students graduated in 1995. Since that time every year a group of around twenty students finished the master-in-material-science study at ITIMS. Many of them found PhD positions abroad; a considerable number in The Netherland and a growing number at universities and research institutes in countries in the South-East-Asia region.

The ITIMS project, however, was more than the formulation of a master-degree programme. Funds were put available to build a new institute for materials science in Hanoi and to upgrade the staff of this institute in PhD programs abroad. There were financial resources to supply the institute with modern equipment for the preparation, characterisation and investigations of semiconductor and magnetic materials including clean-room facilities.

The choice of research topics and discussions on the required investments in scientific equipment were also topics of lively debates within the IAB.  As chairman of this board it was a pleasure to experience the enthusiasm and personal involvement of its members. One of the topics for which it was difficult to arrive at a decision was the choice of the university where sandwich PhD students receive their doctor diploma. For the Dutch universities the number of PhD examinations counts for the financial support they receive from the Dutch Government. Without that financial support it is impossible to finance the research of a PhD student. From Vietnamese side it was emphasized that it is important for the self-conscience of the Vietnamese scientific community to have PhD students receiving their bull on the basis of an internationally respected research program in Vietnam. Thanks to the wisdom of its members, the IAB was always finding solutions for these dilemma’s.

As far as the PhD programs were concerned, the IAB was strongly in favour of the so-called sandwich programmes in which a four-years PhD program is partly realised in Vietnam, partly abroad. The advantage of the sandwich formula is that the research programmes of ITIMS and of the partner-research institute abroad are linked. A second point that was of considerable weight is that, in this sandwich construction, there is less risk that PhD students drift away from their home country and that there is a better chance that family ties are maintained. Of course, this was a somewhat paternalistic attitude of the supervising board. The reality turned out to be different. Research leaders as well as PhD students prefered the traditional formula with a direct supervision of the thesis supervisor (promotor) in his own institute during the full four-years period. Still, it is my own perception that the sandwich formula has large advantages and that it should not get outside our views.

The construction of the ITIMS building was a major effort and asked for brave decisions of the project leaders. Officially, the ITIMS building was opened in 1997 by the Vietnamese Vice-Minister for Education and Training  and by the Dutch Ambassador in Vietnam, five years after the establishment of ITIMS in 1992.

Between 1992 and 2001, two more international symposia in Hanoi were concerned with materials science: IWOMS’95 and IWOMS’99. In that period I had the privilege to serve as co-ordinator for the scientific part of the ITIMS project and as the chairman of the IAB. The IAB is transformed, after the official termination of the ITIMS project in 2001, in the International Advisory Committee. This change in name underlines the change in position of this body: from a supervising board to an advisory committee. It reflects the change in responsibility for ITIMS that, since 2001, is fully in the hands of the ITIMS Board.

In the second decade of ITIMS’s existence, new epithets were introduced to characterize the research on materials in Vietnam. The symposium in 2002 (ISAMM’02) was on ‘advanced’ materials and the ten-year’s celebration of ITIMS in 2002 was devoted to ‘materials for the 21th century’. The worldwide shift in material science from bulk to micro- and nanoscience is recognisable in the titles of the meetings that I attended in the past few years: NANOMATA’09, a symposium on technology and application of nano-materials and ICAMN 2012, an international conference on advanced materials and nanotechnology with participation of scientists from countries strongly involved in cooperation with ITIMS. The contributions from Vietnamese side, presented at this symposium, are dealing with nano-particles, -wires, -tubes and –composites with a variety of sensors and with thin-film applications among other topics. They clearly demonstrate the international level of research that nowadays is carried out in Vietnam. For the insiders, it was evident that ITIMS played a major role in these recent developments. The ambition of ITIMS is to continue that position in the future. The title “Materials for the 21th century” that was given in 2002 by the director of ITIMS Prof. Nguyen Phu Thuy to the symposium on the occasion of its tenth anniversary,  underlines that ambition.

It is my sincere wish that ITIMS continues to keep its forefront position in the development of science in Vietnam and that the excellent relations with scientists abroad will be consolidated and further extended.