Breakthrough: The Irish Connection

Thu, Jul 5, 2012, 01:00

IRISH SCIENTISTS and students have conducted research at Cern for almost a decade, building some of the sensitive equipment and participating in data collection and analysis. Yet there are concerns that this may end due to a change in funding policy.

Dr Ronan McNulty (pictured here), a senior lecturer in physics at University College Dublin, heads the only Irish experimental group at Cern, with the link dating back to 2003.

He has five PhD students from UCD working at Cern, including three Irish, one American and one Chinese. “We have already had five PhDs through the system there on the LHC [Large Hadron Collider],” he said, speaking from Cern yesterday. “All of these five now have post-doctoral jobs around the world.”

Yet just as yesterday’s announcement begins to show the potential of the collider to make new discoveries, the Irish involvement could be in jeopardy.

His concerns relate to an increased emphasis on the demand that commercial benefit should arise from State-funded research activity. The change was imposed by government and works through bodies such as Science Foundation Ireland.

He knows of several funding applications in the physics area that were turned down “summarily” given a lack of obvious commercial return.

The foundation said yesterday it was premature to assume funding would not be provided. Dr McNulty had won several rounds of funding for his work, which had always been reviewed positively, said a spokeswoman. He had submitted a new application but the foundation could not comment, given it was an independent peer reviewed process.

The Irish group are involved on an LHC experiment called the LHCb. The project is led by the University of Liverpool, but the UCD team is an active participant. It is involved in a detector on the LHCb called Velo.

“We helped build that and provided some of the parts in co-operation with the Tyndall National Institute in Cork and workshops at UCD,” he said.

The UCD team has published findings in peer-reviewed journals and worked on the build-up to the Higgs discovery.

“This has been going on for nearly 10 years,” he said, but fears the funding will end given the policy change.

“I don’t think I will be able to take any more students on the LHC. We won’t be able to help exploit the discovery of the Higgs.”