Government to consider Cern membership

Review will study benefits and costs of joining the European nuclear reserach lab

The magnet core of the world’s largest superconducting solenoid magnets during work at the European nuclear research lab (Cern) in Geneva. Photograph: Martial Trezzini/AP

The magnet core of the world’s largest superconducting solenoid magnets during work at the European nuclear research lab (Cern) in Geneva. Photograph: Martial Trezzini/AP

 

The Government is to review whether Ireland should become a member of Cern the European nuclear research lab. It forms part of a wider review of our membership of other international research organisations such as the European Southern Observatory.

Minister of State for Research and Innovation Sean Sherlock announced this evening he had asked Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation officials “to carry out a review of Ireland’s international engagement on research and innovation, in particular the costs and benefits of membership of international research organisations including Cern”.

He asked them to take into account funding constraints and also the prioritised areas that currently define State investment in research.

“Ireland’s membership of international research organisations must be predicated on whether the benefit of membership, in terms of support to Irish researchers, companies and jobs, justifies the cost involved,” he said.

The last review of membership suggested costs outweighed benefits, but it was “timely” to consider the arguments again, he said. “I have an open mind on the matter and it will really come down to what represents best value for taxpayers’ money.”

He has asked the department to consult with Cern, research agencies and the research community to produce an assessment in the coming months.

His decision comes on the day students and academics joined to campaign for Cern membership, arguing that it would bring educational opportunities for students, promote job creation and improve Ireland’s high-tech reputation abroad. Cern is based on the French/Swiss border and is the lab that last year confirmed the existence of the Higgs boson.

The campaign expressed its delight at the decision. The minister had been “proactive in deciding to conduct a review”, said spokesswoman Nikki Truss. “This is a huge step towards acieving one of the aims of our campaign and it is great to see the Government responding to an initiaive started by students.

The group launched a website for the campaign, irelandforcern.org

It would cost about €1 million a year to be an associate member, which would give Irish companies the right to bid for contracts at Cern, said Prof Ronan McNulty, a University College Dublin-based particle physicist who runs an Irish research group at Cern.

The research centre makes about€500million in contracts available to member and associate members every year, something that would defray the cost of joining, he said. Typically contracts return at least €3 to the economy and society at large for every €1 spent on membership, Prof McNulty said.

But there were many other benefits, for example providing students with access to the most advanced lab of its kind in the world. “Ireland must be involved in frontier research,” he said. “For €1 million I think it is a complete bargain.”

Fifne Gael South Ireland MEP Sean Kelly has thrown his weight behind the campaign, saying the “the cost was minimal compared to the benefits”.

Cern confirmed that the cost of associate membership for Ireland was 1.5 million Swiss francs or €1.2 million. Full membership would cost about 15 million francs or about €12 million.