Austria May Leave CERN

I mentioned this here when I first heard about it, but by now more information is available. Last Thursday the Austrian government announced their intention to withdraw from membership in CERN, effective late 2010. This decision still needs to be approved by the parliament. An official statement from CERN is available here, news stories here and here, blog postings many places including here.

The cost to Austria of CERN participation is not extremely large (less than 20 million Euro/year, roughly similar to the cost of running the math department here at Columbia [upon investigation, that’s an exaggeration, maybe closer to the cost of the physics and math departments together…] ), and this decision came as a surprise to the physicists in Austria who will be most affected by it. Unfortunately, joint efforts like CERN that produce fundamental scientific knowledge with no direct applicability suffer from an inherent structural problem. After leaving CERN, Austria will still benefit from knowledge produced there, even if they are no longer paying for membership. In times of budgetary problems, a government could rationally decide to cut-back on its contribution to organizations that it believes will manage to go on without its help. The problem here is not so much the loss of Austria’s contribution, which is a budgetary problem CERN can find some way to deal with, but the danger that other members of the European community may decide to follow suit. If a lot of other European governments make the same calculation as Austria, CERN could not survive.

A letter signed by representatives from all the particle physics groups in the UK is going to the Austrian government, asking for reconsideration of this decision, and presumably similar efforts will come from the rest of the CERN member states. The Austrian Institute for High Energy Physics has set up a web-site dealing with the issue here, and an on-line petition here.

If the decision is not overturned, CERN will be in a very uncomfortable position with respect to collaboration with Austrian physicists. While cutting off contacts goes against all traditions of the field, continuing them would encourage other states to follow Austria’s example.

Update: It looks like the decision has been overturned, and Austria will stay in CERN. There’s a news story in German here.

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17 Responses to Austria May Leave CERN

  1. karl says:

    Hi Peter, are you sure about the 20 Mios for the Math Department?
    b.t.w. the actual CERN Membership is somewhat less for Austria, rather around 16 Mios. it adds up to 20 if they also close the Institute for High Energy Physics HEPHY.
    But I wonder if you should be sympathetic to the plan: just as you want to shoot down string theory there are scientists who want to shoot down experimental high energy physics. I guess in the US you do have experience with people like that.

  2. Peter Woit says:


    That was an order of magnitude estimate. I checked into this a bit, and if you add all costs up, maybe 10 million dollars would be closer. So, I edited the post a bit to reflect this.

    I understand that HEP has always had a problem that it’s an expensive business, and other scientists sometimes believe that if the budget for HEP were to be cut, there would be more for them.

  3. J.F. Moore says:

    The Tragedy of the (unreguated) Commons manifested as usual.

    Peter, regarding HEP we can only hope that the likely budget increases to all science in the next few years will remove that kind of pressure. Most sensible scientists know already that total science funding is not a conserved quantity, and further that coupling within and between departments is weak at best (e.g. zeroing out ILC would not lead to a commensurate increase in cancer research).

  4. DB says:

    It’s ironic. Just six months ago, Fermilab and the Tevatron was being written off, and the consensus was that it would be converted into a user facility in 2010. Since then we’ve seen substantial new funding from the new administration which seems to indicate a genuine HEP future for Fermilab beyond 2010, the serious problems at CERN and their subsequent mishandling by the PR department, the latest CDF/D0 limits on where the Higgs is likely to be found (if indeed it exists) which place it in energy ranges not so favourable for the LHC.

    Now come the Austrians and a new set of (as yet unconfirmed) rumours indicating that there are additional problems with some magnets and that the new CERN schedule may have to be further delayed.

    While I don’t welcome any of these difficulties for CERN, one side-effect is a revitalisation the sense of competition and rivalry between US and European groups which has always been an important and healthy feature of HEP research.

    There is now a possibility, and it is by no means as remote as once thought, that the Tevatron will discover the Higgs before the LHC.

  5. Andrei says:

    I agree with DB here. The best science happens when there is healthy competition. I.e. pressure to perform. I realize most of the scientists there who are not really in it for the science but more for the cushy jobs are absolutely apoplectic about the new pressures. But in my view the pressure on CERN from a revitalized Tevatron and the threat of withdrawal are welcome and overdue. The only reason CERN got away with so many program failures was their perceived monopoly on physics. This is manifested everywhere where physicists take this high horse attitude: support the LHC or you do not understand this and that and the other. This pressure is a blowback that tells the high horse people either you are in the game and produce physics or let somebody else do it. LET THERE BE PRESSURE. PLANCK SCALE PRESSURE OF POSSIBLE.

  6. jpd says:

    yes, einstein made his great breakthrough competeing with all those other patent agents

  7. karl says:

    Dear Andrei,
    I have spent several years at CERN, believe me, everybody there would
    be happy with feeling the scientific pressure of rival program to the LHC in the US! to blame the lack of this pressure and not to mention the continuing budget cuts CERN had to face over the last decade for some of the technological problems is an original ansatz.

  8. Peter Woit says:

    Andrei and respondents,

    Enough. I’ve deleted the last few comments here since they transmit no information, just anonymous hostility and abuse. Please stick to the topic at hand.

  9. Hi Peter, re
    “After leaving CERN, Austria will still benefit from knowledge produced there, even if they are no longer paying for membership.”

    This argument against joining CERN has been employed by government mandarins in Ireland for decades now. The result has been twofold: the decimation of research in experimental particle physics (an area that Ireland had a proud tradition in, from Walton to O Ceallaigh etc) and a feeling among european scientific partners that we are not pulling our weight…

  10. art says:


    “yes, einstein made his great breakthrough competeing with all those other patent agents”

    it is relevant to point out that Einstein was in race to the finish with Hilbert to find field equations for general relativity.

  11. Pedro says:

    «it is relevant to point out that Einstein was in race to the finish with Hilbert to find field equations for general relativity.»

    And lost.

  12. neo says:

    This is not tragedy of the commons (the over use of a depletable resource) but the free rider problem (refusal to pay for a public good that benefits all). Sorry to be picky.

  13. Marion Delgado says:

    I was going to say what neo said.

    I can add one thing – free riders are a subset of the prisoner’s dilemma.

    And prisoner’s dilemmas are solved by either an outside coordinator or by negotiation over a series of transactions.

    The 2nd case is what Peter Woit is discussing.

  14. srp says:

    If it discovers the Higgs, CERN should claim a process patent on using the particle to create mass and then force Austria to pay up big if it still wants to have inertia.

  15. thx for putting up the link for the petition!

    I’m a physics student at the university of vienna and I have to say it’s all just politics.
    They decided to leave CERN without asking anyone who would even know what a taylor series is…

  16. wolfgang says:

    It was just announced that Austria will *not* leave CERN and remain a member.
    Science minister Hahn could not convince the (larger) part of the coalition government, including the chancellor, of his plan.

  17. Peter Woit says:

    Thanks Wolfgang,

    Good news. I’ll add an update to the posting about this.

Comments are closed.