Why is Ireland not a member of Cern?
State has rich history in particle physics but will not cough up €1m Cern membership fee
Cern’s Large Hadron Collider: “If Ireland is serious about being part of the international science community, then we ought to be part of Cern. We are increasingly isolated by not being a member,” says Fianna Fáil’s James Lawless. Photograph: Cern/PA Wire
Actions speak louder than words. Despite all the parroting about the knowledge economy, Ireland remains outside the premier particle physics lab in the world, Cern; the European Organisation for Nuclear Research. The vast majority of EU countries are members of this scientific organisation, which asks the big questions such as, what is our universe made up of?
Less than €1 million is the cost for Ireland to join as an associate member of Cern, €10 million as a full member. We will soon have only Malta and Luxembourg for company as EU non-members of Cern.
“We are in splendid isolation,” says particle physicist Ronan McNulty at University College Dublin. “It’s crazy. I think it does huge reputational damage [to ireland].” Turkey, Pakistan, Ukraine and India have joined as associate members.
Ireland has a proud history in particle physics. Waterford native and Trinity graduate Ernest Walton built a particle accelerator in the 1930s and became the first person to split the atom. “Given the history of Ireland in nuclear and particle physics, it will be a natural step for Ireland to come closer to Cern,” says Emmanuel Tsesmelis from Cern’s international relations office in Geneva, Switzerland – noting how Walton’s pioneering work was a forerunner of Cern’s activities.
Cern’s Large Hadron Collider smashes two streams of protons travelling in opposite directions together. It takes 90 microseconds for the protons to zip around a 27km circuit below the Swiss-French border at close to the speed of light. The aftermath of the collisions are recorded by detectors and the results processed and stored in huge databanks.
Cern experiments continue to ask child-like questions of mind-blowing significance. Are there extra dimensions, what is dark matter made of, and what happened in the first millionth of a second after the Big Bang? Basically how does the universe work. “The big questions continue to excite school kids and the public,’ says McNulty, “and are part of what makes us human.”
The Higgs boson (aka, the God particle) was first observed at Cern in 2012. Proposed in the 1960s with little fanfare, confirmation of the Higgs’ existence saw two theoretical physicists awarded the Nobel Prize for physics in 2013 for this early work. The Higgs was needed for the best explanation physicists have for how the universe works (the so-called standard model).
Though it creates new knowledge, there’s an economic dividend too from Cern. “You can’t be part of that knowledge unless you are in the club creating it,” says McNulty. He is critical of Ireland’s attitude to science: we want to jump on the bandwagon and spin-off new knowledge to make money, but it is difficult to be a leader if you are not part of the knowledge creation.
Lithuania joined Cern early this year as an associate member, while Estonia and Latvia have begun the process of joining. Ireland is left in the company of Malta, Luxembourg and Iceland; none of which has a substantial particle physics community.
“If you look at the map of Europe, Ireland does stand out now in not being a member or associate member [of Cern],” says Tsesmelis. “A lot of the remaining countries like the Baltic States and countries in the southeast of Europe have joined.”
Scientists and students in Ireland are barred from staff positions at Cern. Irish teachers and students miss out on training and workshops, while university students are excluded from placements and apprenticeships at one of the best research facilities in the world. “These things probably have a deeper impact into society,” says Tsesmelis.
There are the economics too. Much of Cern’s €1 billion budget goes on procurement from companies in member states. “If Ireland contributed €1 million per year, that can easily be returned in terms of high-tech equipment purchased from Ireland in industrial contracts,” Tsesmelis adds.
The firm that built vacuums at Cern came up with a sea-change in solar cell technology, while one involved in its powerful magnets leads in NMR machines for hospitals. Cern, which invented the world wide web in 1989, is also a leader in big data and sensor tech.
“Cern estimates that for every euro spent you get three euro back. Joining would allow Ireland access those contracts and our businesses would do well,” says James Lawless, Fianna Fáil spokesperson on science and technology, who visited Cern earlier this year. He argues Ireland has a moral obligation to join also.
“If Ireland is serious about being part of the international science community, then we ought to be part of Cern. In the developing world, we are increasingly isolated by not being a member,” Lawless adds. “It is almost embarrassing to see the list of countries who are members, while we are not.”
Cern received a letter from the Government in 2016 expressing an interest in joining, but a letter last December stated Ireland would not join for now, due to financial constraints. It costs €1 million by way of annual contribution.
Many scientists and high-tech companies based in Ireland believe it adds up to a disappointing squawk against our commitment to a knowledge economy.