On the 30th of January this year, the “Ireland for Cern” campaign was launched as students, academics and politicians joined forces to campaign for Irish membership of Cern (European Organization for Nuclear Research). The event was held in the Science Gallery, and was attended by high profile speakers, including Sean Kelly MEP, a strong advocate of the benefits of membership.
Established in 1954, the Cern laboratory came about following the work of the European Council for Nuclear Research, after which the lab is named (French: Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire). The Council itself was set up in 1952 with a mandate to build a world-class fundamental physics research organisation. Cern was one of Europe’s first joint ventures, and has been a huge success, still pushing the boundaries of science sixty years later.
Almost every country in Western Europe can claim to be somewhat involved in Cern either through membership, observer status or a cooperation agreement. Twenty-one countries are full members, giving them access to the facility, a place on the Council, and the chance to have their say about the activities of the organisation. In return, they pay for the capitol and overhead costs needed to keep Cern running. Member states include France, Germany and the United Kingdom. Ireland is currently the only western European country to not be involved in any way in the Cern project. The last review of membership, carried out by Georgia Tech in 2001, recommended that the membership was too costly for the benefits it would bring and that the resources could be better employed elsewhere, leading to the plan to apply for membership being scrapped. More recently however, on the same day as the “Ireland for Cern” launch, Minister of State for Research and Innovation Sean Sherlock announced that the Government was going 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”.
Associate level membership of Cern would cost the country approximately ¤1 million per annum, and would not entitle Ireland to all the benefits of full membership, but according to Aoibheann Brady, current Chairperson of DU Mathsoc (Mathematical Society) and one of the founding members of the campaign, it would be a great place to start. “Associate level membership is almost like a stepping stone to being a full member – once the Government get a first-hand look at the benefits of Cern membership, I’d be shocked if they turn it down” she told Trinity News. Also working on the campaign is Colin O’Callaghan, a final year Theoretical Physics student in Trinity, who held the view that circumstances had changed dramatically since the last review: “A lot can change in 12 years. For example, the Large Hadron Collider was only being built when the first review into membership took place. There is now more reason than ever to seriously consider membership.”
Speaking to Trinity News, Brady and O’Callaghan also highlighted the advantages of membership in terms of economic, research and educational benefits. “One of the biggest benefits, and probably the most important to the Government, would be the chance to tender for contracts” said Brady. Cern annually offers over ¤500 million in contracts, which only member states can tender for, meaning Ireland is losing out on a massive potential revenue source. Aiding this fact is the pulling power Ireland would have in terms of winning these contracts, as many of them are in areas where Ireland excels, such as civil engineering. Also important in relation to the contracts is the fact that many of them are for “Big Data” handling and processing, an area the Irish Government has specifically aimed to become a world leader in. According to O’Callaghan, “there is no better source of Big Data in the worldCern generates over 15 petabytes (15 x1015 bytes) of data yearly, and as a member we would have access to it.” In addition to the economic benefits, and hugely important to the student-led campaign team, is the educational benefits that membership would bring Ireland for both second and third level students. Cern offers fully-funded teacher training courses for participants from member states, which aims to promote the teaching of physics in schools, and inspire students to go on and study STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) courses at third level. Teachers are afforded the chance to visit the facilities, participate in workshops and to produce teaching resources with help from Cern’s outreach experts to take home and aid them in teaching their classes. Cern also offers university students the chance to apply for summer internships, where they would work with research teams on a daily basis, as well as participating in lectures and workshops. While there is currently an application allotment for non-member states, it is small enough to mean that usually only one Irish student would have the opportunity to go in a given year. Membership of Cern would allow more Irish students to participate, allowing them to rub shoulders with international experts and helping future Irish researchers to continue to make a disproportionate impact on the world of physics.
While the campaign members were delighted that the review had been announced by the Minister, they don’t believe their job is finished just yet. “We want to ensure we don’t have a repeat of the last time a review was undertaken, where just one point of view was considered. This time around we want to have a broad range of opinions on membership from all the areas that would be impacted by it”, was O’Callaghan’s take on the campaign’s next steps, while Brady spoke about reaching out to the public. “We want the public to care about physics, though we realise it won’t be in the same way we as researchers would” she said, going on to add that members of the public are often unaware of the origin of a lot of new technology. “Even if we don’t succeed in getting membership from this campaign, at the very least we will have an informed public and a better platform from which to lobby in the future”, she said.
More information about the campaign, the benefits of Cern membership for Ireland and the people involved can be found on the Ireland for Cern website, www.irelandforcern.org.