Innovating in knowledge transfer

When you ask people whether investment in basic science is worth it, the answer you get is an overwhelming ‘yes’… followed by a pause, and then a question: ‘what’s the immediate benefit?’ Of course we have answers.


Basic research at CERN expands the pool of human knowledge. It inspires the young, and provides an important impetus to scientific and technical education. Applications of CERN technology are to be found in many domains, and the results of basic science provide the seeds for applied research. All this is clear and well established, but we can always do more, and that’s why I was particularly impressed with an event that took place at CERN last week.

Education and innovation are core missions for CERN, and they came together last week when 17 students from universities in Finland, Greece and Italy presented the results of their five-month challenge-based innovation course (CBI). Developed by CERN along with Aalto University, the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia and the National Technical University of Athens, CBI aims to bring a new element to learning while actively seeking innovative applications of CERN knowledge. On the evidence of last week’s presentations, it’s a very effective approach.

Two projects were presented, both based on work being carried out in EU-funded Marie Curie initial training networks, one looking at virtual and augmented reality approaches to maintenance in extreme environments, the other at instrumentation for particle detection. It’s a relatively easy stretch to imagine how techniques developed for maintenance of the ATLAS detector could be deployed, say, in space. But in the form of a learning tool for autistic children? Yet that’s exactly what happened.  Similarly, particle detection techniques developed at CERN have wide applications in medicine for example. But who would have thought that students working with the Marie Curie researchers might be inspired to develop a tool to provide an audio recording of meetings, with all pauses, ums and ahs removed.

What happened last week was a pilot, but it’s something I think we’ll be seeing more of as we seek ever more innovative ways to ensure that the inspired thinking that happens at CERN finds application beyond the laboratory walls.

Rolf Heuer