Living in the spotlight

Just a few weeks ago, we celebrated the 20th anniversary of the World Wide Web. It gave me my first opportunity since taking up my mandate to see first hand what CERN’s newfound public profile means in practice. There were over 60 media from around the world present at CERN for the event, and some 900 reports in the media over the following days. Some weeks before, Sony pictures held a press event for their upcoming movie, Angels and Demons, part of which takes place at CERN. That happened during the same week that we published the new LHC schedule, and it was the LHC that got the most media coverage.

So what does this mean for how we carry out our daily work? Particle physics has always operated in a fully open and transparent way. It’s in our DNA to do so. Meetings are open to all comers, and it is important that we continue to foster such a culture of transparency. Nevertheless, we need to be aware that we are much more in the public spotlight than ever before.

We have to be aware that when we are speaking to colleagues in open meetings, giving stories to our home institutions’ internal publications, or writing messages to the CERN community in the Bulletin, the eyes of the world are on us. That doesn’t mean that we should be less candid than we’ve been in the past, but it does imply a greater degree of responsibility in the way we communicate. We must be sure that what we are saying avoids any kind of particle physics ‘shorthand’ that could be misinterpreted, and that results are not communicated until they have passed normal internal peer review procedures. We must also not forget that CERN’s projects, although global in scope, depend on local contributions: if you’re talking to an audience from a particular country, highlight that country’s achievements.

For these reasons, the new code of conduct that the HR Department is preparing will include guidelines for use of sensitive information, with a view to improving the quality of information that we as a community are providing for the outside world, which seems to have developed a new thirst for information about physics. We owe it to them, and to ourselves, to tell our stories not only openly and accurately, but also in a way that non-specialists can appreciate. This is no longer just the preserve of our communication team, but the responsibility of each and every one of us.

Rolf-Dieter Heuer