Cern, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, is one of the greatest civilian scientific research organisations on the planet. It has produced 33 Nobel Laureates and is home to the world’s greatest scientific machine – the Large Hadron Collider, a 26.5km circular, underground particle accelerator, capable of closely recreating the first seconds in the life of the universe.
The Theoretical Physics Student Association, held a meeting recently at the provost’s residence at Trinity College Dublin to discuss how the issue of the State’s Cern membership, which has been envisaged for decades, can be somehow pushed up the Government agenda. In attendance were physicists, mathematicians, politicians, journalists and civil servants.
TCD provost Prof Linda Doyle opened the meeting by thanking the people who over many years pushed for Cern membership. She said: “We have brilliant people in this room, brilliant people in Ireland who will be better able to use their talents if they can get access to Cern equipment and facilities.”
The best approach was to push for associate membership now, with a view to full membership in the longer term, she suggested.
For physicists, Cern is as good as it gets. This is where answers to the biggest questions are found and where spin-off technologies resulting from this research, such as the world wide web, can change lives for the better. It is an elite club for doing elite science.
Cern, with its 17,000 physicists, engineers and technicians working in different locations, yet all connected to each other, represents the largest, most sophisticated and complex experiment on the planet
It was founded in 1954, to unite science and scientists across Europe, and its members include all the nations of western, central and eastern Europe, Scandinavia and some Baltic states. In short, almost any country in Europe remotely interested in pursuing cutting-edge particle physics. The case for joining makes sense to everyone across Europe, it seems, with the notable exception of the State.
The reasons why the Government has refused to sign up for Cern membership – which would cost the State in the region of €13.5 million per annum, including a once-off payment of €16.8 million – are not clear. If it’s finance, then the costs must be seen in the context of the annual budget of €208 million in 2021 going to Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) – just one public research body here.
The refusal to sign up even for cheaper associate Cern membership – which would offer many of the benefits of full membership – at a cost of about €1.5 million is perplexing. The question scientists would like answered is: why, for such a minimal cost, is the Government prepared to cut off researchers and high-tech industry here from the obvious benefits Cern would bring?
There are three great cross-European scientific bodies; the European Space Agency (ESA), the European Southern Observatory (ESO) and Cern. The State joined ESA in 1974 and this led to the thriving local space industry we see here today. In 2018, the State finally joined ESO, after years of lobbying and this has helped stimulate astronomy and high-technology industry here.
Yet, there has been no move to join Cern, despite the sense in the immediate pre-pandemic years momentum towards membership was building. This has disadvantaged physicists here, many believe, as they have to emigrate to do leading research, as well as students and postgraduates, who cannot apply to spend time at Cern, like, for example, their UK peers.
Cern, with its 17,000 physicists, engineers and technicians working in different locations, yet all connected to each other, represents the largest, most sophisticated and complex experiment on the planet, noted Sinéad Ryan, professor of pure and applied mathematics at TCD.
“The motivation behind it is to enable particle physicists to understand the basic building blocks of matter and the world around us. Cern provides a deep understanding of the world, with huge benefits for science and society, in often unexpected ways; for example, the world wide web was invented at Cern as a way to share data and communicate,” she explained.
The development of superconducting materials and magnets, advanced medical imaging technology and microelectronics all emerged out of research at Cern. In addition, “It is an inspiring place to visit, for children, teachers and scientists, and it is training the scientists and engineers of tomorrow and uniting people in many countries.”
The vast majority of European countries, including Estonia and Latvia who joined in the past six years, are full members of Cern. “When you look at the map of Europe and Cern membership, Ireland is very much the outlier by not being even associated with Cern,” Ryan said, while agreeing associate membership for the State should be pursued as a strategic first step.
Prof Holger Claussen, head of the Wireless Laboratory at Tyndall National Institute in University College Cork, said the State, if it was a member of Cern, would be better placed to find customers and applications for its technology. “Cern is the best in the world, and this could help Ireland to find new customers and develop new applications for technology such as monitoring offshore wind farms. Membership can also bring benefits for undergraduates and postgraduates,” he said.
Michael Mitchell, a first-year physics PhD student at TCD and founder of the Theoretical Physics Student Association, said that Cern was the kind of place that inspired young scientists. “We know that up to 95 per cent of physics undergraduates have been inspired by particle physics; I want my peers and superiors to have confidence their full potential can be realised in Ireland.”
Lack of awareness of Cern among politicians was highlighted by several speakers. “It was remarked in the Dáil in 2014, in relation to Cern leading to the invention of the internet, that the internet was coming anyway,” Mitchell said. “This only goes to show the extent to which we have, in Ireland, completely taken for granted our most important scientific discoveries.”
Membership was an issue going back to 2002, said Prof Samson Shatashvili, chair of natural philosophy at TCD, and the problem was trying to figure out how to make the final step. “It is almost like there’s a complete disconnect with the decision-making of Government.”
‘There are very few positions available at Cern and the competition is intense but as a member country you have the right to apply for these positions’
It was suggested the political block on membership may be linked to the “old fear” of nuclear lingering somewhere, and State funding agencies including SFI needed to be seen to be doing more on the issue. Cern’s work has no links with military applications.
In relation to associate membership benefits, Ryan said Irish business could apply for contracts with Cern up to the value of about €500,000, positions at Cern would open up for Irish researchers, while students and teachers could attend training and outreach events there.
“There are very few positions available at Cern and the competition is intense but as a member country you have the right to apply for these positions,” said Ryan. “That changes – very dramatically – the dynamic,” she said.
Shatashvili said his Republic of Ireland students were disadvantaged over his Northern Ireland students, as students south of the Border could not apply to spend a year or two at Cern, as part of their PhD or master’s, while a student based somewhere in the North could.
Fianna Fáil Senator Malcolm Byrne said: “It’s not just the membership fee. I think if we are going to join any organisation at a multilateral level we have to be willing to commit to the kind of support at home that will allow people to engage with it.”
Peter Healy, a civil servant at the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, said he was happy to hear the passion people had for membership and promised the arguments for joining Cern had been listened to.
“There is no mechanism blocking this,” he underlined. “I assure you that we do hear your argument, but you need to keep on making the rounds. There was a strategic review about seven years ago that said Ireland needed to join five research organisations. We have joined some of them at this point, but this one [Cern] has got caught up in the queue.”