A disturbing piece of news passed me by last week. One of the founder members, Austria, has decided to pull out of CERN, the home of the much-vaunted Large Hadron Collider. The announcement was made on 8th May 2009, but I missed it at the time owing to my trip to Berlin.
Austria, a founder member of CERN, has been a member of the 20-nation body since 1959, but its justification for leaving, according to Austria’s Minister for Science Johannes Hahn, is that the CERN subscription ties up about 70% of the nation’s budget for international research. To quote him
“In the meantime there have been diverse research projects in the European Union which offer a very large number of different scientists’ perspectives..”
Austria only contributes 2.2 percent of CERN’s budget, but it will be the first country to leave the organization since Spain’s departure in 1969. Spain rejoined in 1983. According to a statement,
“CERN would be sorry to lose Austria as one of its member states and sincerely believes that it would be in Austria’s best interests to remain a member..”
The immediate consequence of this will be a (small) increase in the subscriptions payable by other member nations in order to plug the funding gap left by Austria’s departure. However, particle physicists will probably see this as a very worrying precedent that might signal to other funding bodies that they could think the previously unthinkable and follow Austria’s example.
The CERN subscription payable by the United Kingdom comes from the budget of the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC). Although it amounts to about £82 million, this is about 16% of the STFC budget, which is a much smaller fraction than in the case of Austria. However, the consequences of one of the larger contributors like the UK pulling out of CERN would be extremely serious, because of the large increases in remaining subscriptions that would be needed to fill the gap that would be created.
All this puts even more pressure on the Large Hadron Collider to produce the goods and it also reinforces the view I expressed in one of my first ever blog posts that we may be nearing the time when nations decide that Big Science is just too expensive and too esoteric to be worth investing in…
STOP PRESS: New just in from Thomas (below) reveals that the Austrians have done a U-bahn U-turn and are not, after all, going to pull out of CERN.
For more information, see the story in Physics World.