Physicists collide with Austria over Cern pullout

Global campaign seeks reversal of decision that may threaten organisation. Zoe Corbyn reports

May 21, 2009

Academics across Europe lamented a "black day" for Austrian research after the country's Government confirmed that it is planning to withdraw from Cern, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research.

It announced earlier this month that it wanted to back out from Cern, of which the flagship project is the £6 billion Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the particle physics experiment that aims to recreate the conditions of the Big Bang.

The Austrian Administration said that Cern was consuming too much of the country's international research budget. It announced the move, which still has to be ratified by Austria's Parliament, just months before the LHC is due to restart after technical problems.

Cern and the Austrian Government are now in discussions about Austria's EUR17 million (£15.3 million) annual contribution to the organisation, which represents about 2 per cent of Cern's yearly budget. Meanwhile, Austrian researchers have mounted an international campaign against the decision.

The campaigners said the move threatens Austria's fundamental particle physics research and applied spin-off projects.

Prominent UK researchers have offered their support. Some 38 British academics from 24 institutions have written a joint letter to Johannes Hahn, the Austrian Science Minister, urging him to reconsider the decision.

"It is hard for us to understand the rationale ... coming as it does at a time when scientists at Cern, including many from Austria, are about to reap enormous benefits from the start-up of the LHC later this year," the letter says. Eight of its signatories are fellows of the Royal Society.

The letter continues: "The benefits of participating in international organisations such as Cern take many forms, from direct financial returns to Austrian industries to the excitement and enthusiasm generated in young people who see their country taking a leading role in a global effort to understand the mysteries of the Universe.

"Furthermore, Cern is a shining example of the role that international co-operation can have in science, as evinced by the enthusiasm with which many of Austria's much poorer neighbours have sought admission to it in the recent past."

James Stirling, a professor at the University of Cambridge who helped co-ordinate the letter, said that many UK physicists had worked alongside Austrian colleagues on the LHC project, and there was widespread dismay in the British particle physics community at Austria's decision and the possible ramifications for both its scientists and Cern.

Professor Stirling predicted a brain drain of scientific talent from Austria if the decision stands.

The group's letter says that particle physics in Europe "is about to enter a new golden era, which will revolutionise our understanding of the Universe in which we live ... and your country is poised to reap a very rich reward. Your decision to leave has placed all this in jeopardy."

There are concerns that others among Cern's 19 member nations, including the UK, could follow suit or try and negotiate a cut-price deal.

A spokeswoman for the Science and Technology Facilities Council said: "The STFC, on behalf of the UK, has no plans to pull out of Cern."

See: www.hephy.at/en/

zoe.corbyn@tsleducation.com.

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