Unravelling CERN

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.

12 Responses to “Unravelling CERN”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    At 70% of Austria’s international scence budget and 2% of CERN’s this decision seems fair. Not all Big Science projects are the same, so that each should be considered on its merits. I am a lot more supportive today of big budget astrophysics than big budget particle physics, which seems to be giving less intellectual return. (Disclaimer: my own field is neither of these.) Hopefully the physics community will put more effort into overcoming limitations in alternative ways to accelerate particles, such as beat wave accelerators.

    Anton

  2. Question: how much notice does a country have to give before pulling out?

    In the case of the UK, I agree that it’s worth it to stay in for 16%. CERN is (one of) the leading particle-physics lab(s) in the world, and would probably be too much for one nation alone. DESY had some overlap with CERN in tne past but if I understand things correctly they have now moved away from basic research. (Although there are many international collaborations, basic funding for DESY comes from just Germany.)

    I beg to differ that big-budget particle physics gives less intellectual return than big-budget astrophysics. First, with time who gives the most return changes, but second and more important if we knew what the return would be then there would be no point in doing it. Expect the unexpected! Even things which look bad at first (no new flashy particles at PETRA) turned out to be useful for other things later on. There are similar examples in astrophysics, of course.

    When it comes to convincing the folks with money to fund one’s work, particle physics probably has an easier time, and thus more intellectual return, at least in some sense of the term. Need I say where WWW was invented? Also, many advances in medical physics (some of which I have personally benefited enormously from, maybe even to the point that I would otherwise be dead) came more or less straight out of basic research in elementary-particle physics.

  3. Anton Garrett Says:

    Philip,

    The point of fundamental research is fundamental research, not spinoffs.

    The avalanche of astrophysical data coming as a result of better detector technology in the last 20 years seems to me to have catalysed theoretical advances in that field. Can you say the same in particle physics? Are we significantly nearer to making sense of the patterns of those many many particles? Will the LHC answer many important questions that particle physicists are asking today? (The Higgs, obviously, but can that alone justify the LHC’s cost?) I’m putting my case as questions, and I welcome genuine answers.

    Anton

  4. I agree that fundamental research is the goal. However, if funds are being cut, then it can be useful to have other arguments to convince the bean counters, at least as long as they are true.

    Yes, astronomy and especially cosmology are now data-driven sciences. It wasn’t that long ago that Longair noted that the number of facts in cosmology had moved up from two-and-one-half to nine. But there were times when particle physics made good progress. Since it is fundamental research, we don’t KNOW what will happen, so the argument that nothing has happened recently doesn’t really hold water.

    Much of the progress in astronomy in the last few decades has come from big instruments doing something OTHER THAN that which they were ostensibly funded to do. Maybe an all-purpose machine like the LHC has some surprises to offer just as, say, the VLA or HST did.

    I read recently, I believe on the e-astronomer blog, that funding agencies are now requesting “expected results”. As Robert Pirsig pointed out, the television scientist who laments “Our experiment is a failure; we didn’t find what we expected” is suffering mainly from a bad scriptwriter. If we KNOW what payoff there will be, then we don’t need to do the experiment or make the observation. Since we don’t know what the results will be, we don’t know how many results there will be.

  5. Anton Garrett Says:

    Well yes, Einstein supposedly said that if we knew what we were doing then it wouldn’t be research. But suppose that a rich man with an interest in pure physics (and none in spinoffs) can fund one of two experiments. Criteria for choice clearly exist, so how should you go about advocating *your* experiment?
    Anton

  6. That’s simple: I (were I the rich man with an interest in pure physics (and none in spinoffs)) would fund that which I find most interesting. What other criterion could there be? That’s the whole point in being rich. 🙂 It is possible that those desiring funding could make my interest in one project or another increase, but that’s only one factor.

  7. Anton Garrett Says:

    To reply with equal coyness… suppose the rich man is a priori equally interested in both experiments, and arranges a debate between proponents of the two. How would you advise them to prepare their cases?In other words, what criteria decide which experiments are more valuable to the research community?

    Anton

  8. If I’m providing the money, then what is interesting to me is most important, not that which is most valuable to the research community. For the purposes of argument, make the additional assumption that I want to spend my money to increase the happiness of the research community by providing them with results which they value.

    Under the assumption that I’m equally interested in both, I would say 20% is perhaps the subjective feeling whether something interesting will turn up or not. I don’t think one can quantify this further. The other 80% wouldn’t be decided by the science case per se, but whether by my impression (based on research record, personal conversations, recommendations,…) one group will do a better job of delivering the goods. We all know of projects which are valuable because the results and data were well and timely communicated as well as projects which would have been valuable had the results and data been communicated well and timely. 😐

  9. Anton Garrett Says:

    I salute your ingenuity in not addressing the point I am after! You referred to “the scientific case per se”. How would you compare that between two experiments, please?
    Anton

  10. But you already assumed that I am equally interested in both. If EVERYTHING else is equal, then I would go with that which looks like it will bring more result, though this is an undefined gut feeling. As I said above, that’s worth about 20% and 80% goes to the ability of the team to get the data and results out quickly in a digestible form.

    In practice, assuming I am equally interested in both, I don’t think the scientific case could swing it—the ability of the corresponding teams is important. Obviously, if everything else is equal, the decision is based on the one item which isn’t.

  11. Thomas D Says:

    You might be interested to know that the Austrians have reversed their decision!
    http://physicsworld.com/cws/article/news/39128

    It still looks like the funding system is rather silly … no, EXTREMELY silly, if there is one small pot of money for ‘membership of international research organizations’ which CERN has to be squeezed into, to the detriment of other projects.

    The article says:
    “…the €20m that Austria spends on CERN makes up 70% of Austria’s funding for international research.

    Physicists in Austria were particularly angry as the science budget has been increased by 15% this year, while the cost of membership at CERN currently amounts to around 0.5% of the total science budget.”

    Therefore the ‘funding for international research’ is about 0.7% of the total science budget. Does this make any sense to you? Why can’t the minister just increase that percentage?

    • telescoper Says:

      Thanks for that bit of news. I didn’t notice it yesterday and have added it to the storyline.

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