Archive for November 16, 2019

The Case for Irish Membership of CERN

Posted in Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on November 16, 2019 by telescoper

In the news here in Ireland this week is a new report from a Committee of the Houses of the Oireachtas making the case for Ireland to join CERN. You can download the report here (PDF) and you’ll find this rather striking graphic therein:

You will see that there are only three European countries that don’t have any form of membership or other agreement with CERN: Latvia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Ireland. The fact that almost everyone else is in is not in itself necessarily a good argument for Ireland to join, but it does make one wonder why so many other countries have found it to join or have an agreement with CERN while Ireland has not.

As the document explains, if the Irish government  were to decide to take Ireland into CERN then  it would first have to become an Associate Member, which would cost around €1.2 million per year. That’s small potatoes really, and  the financial returns to Irish industry and universities are likely to far exceed that, so the report strongly recommends this step be taken. This Associate member stage would last up to 5 years, and then to acquire full membership a joining fee of around €15.6 million would have to be paid, which is obviously a much greater commitment but in my view still worthwhile.

While I strongly support the idea of Ireland joining CERN I do have a couple of concerns.

One is that I’m very sad that the actual science done at CERN is downplayed in the Oireachtas report. Most of it is about return to industry, training opportunities, etc. These are important, of course, but it must not be forgotten that big science projects like those carried out at CERN are above all else science projects. The quest for knowledge does have collateral benefits, but it a worthy activity in its own right and we shouldn’t lose sight of that.

My other (related) concern is that joining CERN is one thing, but in order to reap the scientific reward the government has to invest in the resources needed to exploit the access to facilities membership would provide. Without a related increase in research grant funding for basic science the opportunity to raise the level of scientific activity in Ireland would be lost.

Ireland recently joined the European Southern Observatory (ESO), a decision which gave Irish astronomers access to some amazing telescopes. However, there is no sign at all of Irish funding agencies responding to this opportunity by increasing funding for academic time, postdocs and graduate students needed to do the actual science.

Although astronomy is clearly much more interesting than particle physics (😉) in one respect the case of ESO is very like the case of CERN – the facilities do not themselves do the science. We need people to do that.