Foundations for the future

Since this is the last Bulletin of 2010, this will be the last word from the Director-General for this remarkable year. I’d like to use it to share some of my reflections on how important it is for CERN, and for science, that the LHC has worked so very well. The scientific results are remarkable, but it’s the political legacy of the LHC’s first year of running that I’d like to talk about here.


Whenever economies are slow, as they are now, basic science comes under pressure as governments look to applied science for winners. Basic science takes too long to deliver products to market – so the conventional logic goes – and it’s much better to concentrate on the applied. There’s merit to this logic, but it’s no cure-all for the economy. We need a broadly balanced approach to science that includes basic and applied research, that harnesses the power of the new media to ensure open access to knowledge, and that encourages an interdisciplinary approach. These are all things we do instinctively at CERN.

In my opinion, it is precisely in times like these that governments need to reaffirm their commitment to basic science. Earlier this year, our Member States did just that in approving our Medium-Term Plan. Their decision brought a strong endorsement of the CERN model for basic science: a consensus-based model that is as healthy today as it was at the time of CERN’s foundation in 1954.

Some technologies, I would contend most, do not come about through government foresight programmes picking winners, but rather through unpredictable sets of circumstances. Would a foresight panel have picked the World Wide Web? I doubt it. Looking further back, would foresight panels have chosen to invest in Michael Faraday? It’s also doubtful, since the lead-time for his innovation was much longer than the political cycle, and therein lies the rub. To get from Faraday’s early experiments with electricity and magnetism to commercial electric light took decades. Similarly, to get from Einstein’s paper on the photoelectric effect to transistors took years. The examples go on, and all are winners, but on timescales far longer than the political cycle.

For innovation to succeed, basic research has to keep churning out results for the applied scientists to get their teeth into. When times are good, private sector R&D reaches out towards the blue-sky end of the spectrum. But even then, the most basic sciences rely on government funding. When the economy is bad, it is firmly the public sector’s duty to ensure that the stream of knowledge running from basic to applied science and on to market is unbroken. That means funding basic science, stimulating knowledge transfer, and making sure that winners are produced in the long run, whether foresight panels spot them or not.

What has this got to do with the LHC’s run in 2010? The LHC helps to make science very visible: science is now firmly on the popular agenda, and bright young people are being inspired to follow scientific careers. Continued innovation depends on this, just as it depends on the right balance of pure and applied research. With the LHC so prominent in the public eye, factors like these make our successes today more important than ever.

Rolf Heuer