- Ukrainian researchers at CERN (the European Council for Nuclear Research) are calling for the expulsion of Russian scientists.
- On Tuesday, CERN leadership will face a difficult vote on the topic.
- There are about 1,000 Russian scientists on CERN’s international team, making up about 8 percent of its total workforce.
On Tuesday, leadership at the European Council for Nuclear Research (CERN) will vote on whether or not to ban Russian scientists from its facilities—home to the Large Hadron Collider—as a response to the invasion of Ukraine. Spearheaded by a group of Ukrainian scientists at the Geneva-based organization, the move, if adopted, could have wide ripple effects across not only nuclear science research, but international relations at large.
Some CERN leaders say the organization was originally designed as a peaceful bridge for scientific research across nations—it’s even kept that pact intact throughout the Cold War-era. The next few days will be critical for CERN’s future and its political identity going forward, as Science reports.
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CERN’s origins date back, in many ways, to the end of World War II. There was a vested international interest in joining together toward a shared goal, and frankly, to stop the mass exodus of European scientists to the United States. In 1951, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, UNESCO, met to establish the European science collective that eventually became CERN. The founding members were West Germany, Belgium, Denmark, France, Greece, Italy, Norway, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Switzerland, and Yugoslavia.
Other nations joined over the subsequent decades, and some—like Spain (joined in 1961, left in 1969, rejoined in 1981) and Yugoslavia—chose to leave CERN. Membership involves making a financial investment, and can be a hard sell depending on the government of a particular nation at a given time. Russia, even with its ties to Europe, has never been a member. But Ukraine is an associate member and has been since 2016. The country is financially invested in CERN and contributes scientists to its enormous staff. (People work for CERN from locations around the world, while relatively few people work on staff at the laboratory itself.)
That catches us up a bit to the present. Science describes CERN’s role as a “bridge” during the Cold War, which may not survive amid the current Russian war against Ukraine. One scientist based in Kyiv, who works on an experiment at CERN, tells the publication:
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. We call on democratic society, on scientific society, to stand with us against this tyrant [Russian President Vladimir Putin].
Physicist Christoph Rembser tells Science that he believes “there will be a clear sign towards the Russian government” following the March 8 meeting. Rembser serves as a senior staff advisory committee member to the Director General of CERN’s office, a position shared by just eight other scientists on the CERN staff. “I can’t imagine anything else,” he tells Science, which seems huge coming from someone with a leadership role at the nuclear research organization.
Physicist John Ellis, a lauded scientist with decades of experience at CERN and King’s College London, tells Science that he still hopes there is some diplomatic way forward for CERN. “My personal attitude is that we should really strive to maintain that collaboration, if it’s at all politically possible,” he says, citing the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Afghanistan in 1979 as times when CERN did not take political action.
So, because Russia isn’t even a member of CERN, what is really at stake here? What happens if CERN decides to make some kind of political comment and take action against Russia? Well, it turns out to be pretty significant. There are 40 Ukrainian scientists who work at CERN, and the organization is working to support them and others with temporary placements and other forms of aid.
But the Ukrainian scientists are calling for CERN to expel its Russian researchers, which make up an astonishing 8 percent of CERN’s entire staff: about 1,000 scientists out of 12,000 total. The Ukrainian staff members who spoke to Science say that some of their Russian colleagues are among those speaking out against the invasion of Ukraine, which means if they were expelled from CERN, they’d likely have to seek refuge there, anyway.
“The last day and night were relatively calm in comparison with the previous one where we suffered from [a] couple of massive airstrikes,” one Ukrainian physicist tells Science.
We will update this story as it develops.
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