For nearly 70 years, CERN, the European particle physics laboratory near Geneva, has served as a narrow but sturdy cultural bridge between East and West. But that link, which endured the coldest days of the Cold War, is straining under the weighty repercussions of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Some Ukrainian physicists are calling for Russia to be expelled from the laboratory, site of three Nobel Prize–winning discoveries and home to the world’s biggest atom smasher, the Large Hadron Collider.
“CERN as a leading scientific laboratory should terminate immediately any cooperation with Russian institutions, because otherwise every crime and every injustice made by their government and their armed forces is seen as legitimate,” says a Ukrainian physicist in Kyiv who works on an experiment at CERN. “We call on democratic society, on scientific society, to stand with us against this tyrant [Russian President Vladimir Putin].”
The CERN Council, which comprises representatives from the lab’s 23 member nations, will meet in a special session on 8 March to decide how to respond to the crisis. Even physicists who extol CERN’s historical role as an engine for peace expect the council to sanction Russia in some way. “There will be a clear sign towards the Russian government,” says Christoph Rembser, a CERN physicist. “I can’t imagine anything else.”
Established in 1954, CERN aimed from its inception to help promote peace in postwar Europe, says John Ellis, a theoretical physicist from King’s College London who works at CERN and was on the lab’s staff for more than 40 years. “One of CERN’s mottos is ‘science for peace,’” he says. “And that goes back to the 1950s, when CERN was actually a meeting place for scientists from the Soviet Union and the U.S. and Europe.” Maintaining such ties is important, especially in a time of conflict, Ellis says, noting that CERN did not expel Russian scientists when the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968 or Afghanistan in 1979. “My personal attitude is that we should really strive to maintain that collaboration, if it’s at all politically possible.”
Rembser, who grew up in what was then West Germany, arrived as a student at CERN in 1989, just after the Chinese government massacred protesters in Tiananmen Square. He says that in the aftermath, CERN served as a way station for Chinese scientists and students fleeing to the West. The barracks in which Rembser stayed grew so crowded that he had to take turns sleeping in a bed. “I was woken up by a guy saying, ‘Now it’s my turn,’ and when I came back, there was another Chinese guy in my bed, too,” he says.
Currently, CERN researchers are striving to aid their 40 or so Ukrainian colleagues. Ellis says he’s trying to help a particular Ukrainian colleague and refugee arrange a temporary position at CERN, and Rembser is leading a committee to support Ukrainians. CERN personnel have already amassed so much aid they may hire trucks to drive the supplies to Ukraine’s border with Poland, Rembser says. Emails seen by ScienceInsider suggest CERN management is working to extend the stays of Ukrainian researchers already at the lab.
The Ukrainian physicist says CERN should also sever ties with Russia. “Keeping these connections, even on the scientific level, will give these gangsters a chance to further manipulate and terrorize our country and the whole of Europe.”
But expelling Russian researchers from CERN could be impractical, Ellis says. More than 1000 Russians work there, he says—roughly 8% of the 12,000 scientists who collaborate at CERN. Their sudden departure might leave the laboratory unable to function. Complicating the matter, Ukraine is an associate member of CERN, meaning even though it has no seat on the council, it pays dues. Russia is merely an observer nation that pays no dues. But it contributes significantly to specific experiments—much like the United States.
Everyone ScienceInsider spoke to acknowledged that the situation has no simple solution. For example, the Ukrainian physicist notes that, on a personal level, Russian colleagues at CERN have been kind and supportive. Many Russian physicists have spoken out against the war, Rembser notes, which could put them at risk if they return to Russia. So CERN could experience an influx of both Ukrainian and Russian physicists looking for refuge, he says.
Whatever the CERN council decides to do next week won’t hinge on the wishes of physicists, researchers say. “The scientists sitting around the table may express their opinions,” Ellis says, “but it’s basically going to be a political decision.”
For the moment, the Ukrainian physicist in Kyiv is safe. “The last day and night were relatively calm in comparison with the previous one where we suffered from the couple of massive airstrikes.”