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Professor Simon White FRS

Director at the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics, Garching, Germany

© H.-A. Arnolds (2015)

In the UK mobility has brought lots of excellent researchers to the universities and a great deal of funded research is being led by non-British citizens who come to the UK because they see it as a good place to work… Future research would benefit from exchange programs and funding to encourage international exchanges – short collaborative visits, postdoctoral stays, or sabbaticals – at all levels of seniority.


Professor Simon White FRS is a British astrophysicist who has remained mobile throughout his long and successful academic career, learning French, German and English from a young age. Now enjoying his role as one of four Directors at the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics in Germany, he reflects on the impact that changes in location have had on his career; “I spent time studying, working, and travelling in France, Germany, Canada, China, the USA, and Britain. This led to an extensive network of contacts and an appreciation for how science works in different countries.”

Simon enjoys experiencing different cultures, seeing different ways of working, being open to new directions, and meeting new people. But his more immediate driver was to find the best place to push his science forward and to work with people he could learn from; “In the UK, mobility brings lots of excellent researchers to the universities and a great deal of funded research is led by non-British citizens who come to the UK because they see it as a good place to work.”

For Simon, the increasingly international nature of science requires frequent contact between researchers in different countries. Although electronic conferencing is invaluable for advancing mutual projects, effective brain-storming of the kind needed to solve deeper problems and to plan new initiatives requires face-to-face meetings, often at relatively short notice. This is greatly facilitated by visa-free travel, both for short visits and for workshops or events. Furthermore, Simon has found that a good working relationship between groups is often best developed by exchanging personnel, with researchers from one group spending time working within a partner group; “Future research would benefit from exchange programs and funding to encourage international exchanges – short collaborative visits, postdoctoral stays, or sabbaticals – at all levels of seniority. The ability to set up such exchanges without visa complications has been a major factor in the growth of networked scientific activity throughout the EEA over the last twenty years. This has served British science extremely well, enhancing both its visibility and its productivity.”

Simon argues that mobile researchers support global science; “Mobility lets you get in touch with the global community. It is through mobility, going and watching people in other countries, that you gain an understanding of global collaboration. Mobile researchers maintain science as a global enterprise.” Simon acknowledges that each country has its advantages and disadvantages; “The important thing is to understand the differences, and how they affect the way people work. Individual researchers should seek to collaborate, to take advantage of different systems, and to unite them into a system that works for all."

Explore a timeline of Simon's career

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