In responding to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the politicians who control the European particle physics laboratory, CERN, are trying to strike a delicate balance. In a special session, the CERN Council, which is composed of representatives from the laboratory’s 23 member nations, voted to suspend the “observer” privileges of the Russian Federation, CERN announced today. The council’s 2-page resolution temporarily bars Russia’s political representatives from auditing the council’s open deliberations or participating in certain closed-door negotiations, and it prohibits setting up new collaborations with Russia.
However, the council did not kick out Russian universities and institutes involved in ongoing experiments at CERN, the home of the world’s largest atom smasher, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). Russians account for more than 1000 of the 12,000 scientists from 95 nations that collaborate in some way at CERN. The council appears to have tried to punish the Russian government while continuing to support Russian physicists, some of whom have worked at CERN for decades.
Some CERN scientists wanted to go further. More than 275 Polish physicists at CERN signed a petition calling for the end of “all institutional collaboration” between CERN and Russian or Belarusian institutions.”
But others think the council got it right. “I’m very happy because [the resolution] sticks to what CERN stands for,” says Christoph Rembser, an experimental physicist at CERN. “We will continue to uphold its core values of scientific collaboration across borders and as a driver for peace.” Since its inception in 1954, CERN has served as a bridge between Russia and the West, even in the darkest days of the Cold War. Its motto is “science for peace.”
John Ellis, a theorist at King’s College London who works at CERN and was on its staff for more than 40 years, is also pleased that scientific collaborations can continue. “For me, it is extremely important because some member states have adopted policies, which certainly sounded like they wanted all collaboration with Russian scientists to stop,” Ellis says. For example, he says, Germany has moved to end scientific ties with Russia.
The council’s decision is still likely to cause some pain for physicists at the laboratory. Russia was given observer status with some special perks in 1993 in exchange for its help building certain components, Ellis says. And it had pledged 34 million Swiss francs ($36.5 million) in parts and equipment for an upgrade, beginning in 2025, that will greatly increase the intensity of the LHC’s beams. “If that is now no longer on the table, that’s potentially an issue for upgrade,” Ellis says. However, the Russian contribution is just a small portion of the upgrade’s total cost, 950 million Swiss francs.
Both Ellis and Rembser applaud the council’s decision on the grounds it may help protect Russian physicists who have spoken out against the war and might be at risk if they had to return to Russia. Rembser, a co-leader of a committee to aid Ukrainian physicists, says he is already thinking about finding ways to allow Russian colleagues to stay in Switzerland.
In its resolution, the CERN Council also said it would promote initiatives to support the laboratory’s 40 or so Ukrainian collaborators. And it said it will continue to monitor the situation in Ukraine. “[T]he Council is ready to take any further measures as appropriate,” the resolution says. The council meets again beginning on 21 March.