Interview with the Director General on the situation of fellows

We have received many reactions through staff delegates that cuts have been made to the budget of fellows. Our colleagues are concerned, whether they are fellows themselves, supervisors of fellows or just their colleagues. The Director General has accepted to answer our questions on this subject.

Staff Association: Thanks for taking the time to discuss with us this topic which raises concerns among our colleagues.

Director general: Before answering directly on the question of the fellows, I would first like to provide information on the financial situation of CERN, which is currently challenging.

We have two important projects in a construction phase: the LHC Injectors Upgrade (LIU) and the LHC High Luminosity Upgrade (HL-LHC). These two projects represent together a material cost of more than CHF 1 billion, but they must be carried out with a constant budget for the Organization, that is with fixed contributions from Member States, which leads to a deficit situation. Moreover, the CERN Council wants the cumulative budget deficit over the coming years (CBD) to remain contained.

In 2019 and 2020, there will actually be a peak in spending due to the completion and installation of LIU during Long Shutdown 2 (LS2), the ramp-up in spending according to the HL-LHC project plan, and the consolidation of accelerators to be done also during LS2. Consequently, 2019 and 2020 are difficult years from a financial point of view. I shall underline that there is no increase in the cost of the LIU and HL-LHC projects that remain within their agreed budget and timelines.

In addition, there are new expenditures each year, depending on the scientific requirements of the Laboratory, but also on the condition and needs of the general infrastructure. For example, this year we will add to the Medium-Term Plan (MTP) the construction of a computing centre on the Prévessin site to fulfil CERN's commitment as Tier 0 of the Worldwide LHC Computing Grid (WLCG) for the second part of Run 3 and the HL-LHC phase. We have also scheduled a new building in Prévessin for 600 additional office spaces, and new resources for the AWAKE project which completed its Phase 1 in 2018 and begins its Phase 2 and for research and development for future detectors.

In this context, compensation must be found with corresponding savings elsewhere. Each year the Directorate and the Extended Directorate (directors and department heads) review and optimise the resources. In 2018 and 2019, an in-depth exercise was carried out, following an internal review, with proposals from department heads and project leaders on the potential savings that could be made in the material budget.

Now I can answer your questions regarding the fellows.

Staff Association: Can you tell us what decisions have been made about the fellows?

Director general: Since 2016, this management has always supported the Fellowship Program; as soon as we took office, we reverted the 10% cut in the Fellowship budget that had been previously decided. We have evolved from 640 fellows at the end of 2015 to 840 at the end of 2018. This fellowship programme is both a flagship and a mission for the Organization.

This year we were forced to slightly reduce the budget at the May Fellows Committee, which was not an easy decision; this measure affects only the AWAKE, CLIC, FCC and R2E (Radiation to Electronics) projects, and only those fellows paid through a transfer from the material budget to the personnel budget ("M2P fellows"). Of course, we cannot expect to do the same amount of work with fewer personnel, but for future long-term projects, a temporary slowdown remains acceptable.

Staff Association: In practice, a Fellows Committee was held on May 21. What are the results of this Committee?

Director general: We do not have final numbers yet, but the consequences are that 8 extensions beyond two years and 20 new requests were not granted solely for the AWAKE, CLIC, FCC and R2E projects.

Staff Association: We have also learned that projects and departments themselves have self-restrained by submitting only requests for extensions and new contracts that were sure to be awarded. How then can we judge the impact of the decisions taken?

Director general: If we compare the recent results of Fellows Committees, we had respectively 129 extensions and 121 new fellowship contracts awarded in November 2018 compared to 1241 extensions and 1101 new contracts in May 2019.

Staff Association: Isn't this also due to conjunctural variations as much as to voluntary decisions?

Director general: Indeed, this is also explained by the fact that projects such as LIU and ELENA are coming to an end; it is therefore normal that they experience a decrease in the number of fellows.

In addition, the Organization must ask itself whether the number of its fellows is optimized to meet the Organization's needs on the one hand, but also for the fellows themselves on the other hand, in terms of workload (overload or underload), work organization, including their supervision, and the quality of their experience during their stay at CERN.

To assess this, the HR department will launch a survey to get the Fellows' opinion on their working conditions, including their workload. This survey will give us important indications to form the basis for future decisions. A survey will also be conducted with the staff (“titulaires”), many of whom are also supervisors of fellows.

Staff Association: The figures announced do not show any dramatic change, 5 fewer extensions and about 10 fewer new fellowship contracts between the two committees, which seems rather inconsistent with the fact that substantial savings are being sought.

Director general: We are still in 2019 with a budget already approved last year, and we must contain already the increase in spending. Every element of saving count. The savings made at the May Fellows Committee were less than CHF 2 million.

Staff Association: So how can one explain the significant feedback we have had from many people who have reported more significant cuts than that?

Director general: I understand that the news about the cuts in extensions and new fellowship contracts may have generated concern among many in the Organization. Cuts are never made with a light heart, but the financial situation is very difficult and there will be sacrifices to be made in the next two years, as we go through the peak of cumulative budget deficit (CBD).

Staff Association: Will the cuts made at the May 2019 Committee be renewed or even increased for future Committees?

Director general: Everything remains to be seen. Cuts have been made to the material budget of departments and projects. This budget includes goods, industrial services and M2P transfers, and therefore affects fellows and project associates. But we leave it to department heads and project leaders to find the best way to absorb these cuts and minimize their impact. I repeat that the Fellowship program is always defended by the Management, because training the younger generation is also part of our mission. But we also need to optimize it both in terms of quantity, number of fellows, and quality, the return for CERN and for the fellows. This is a reflection that we will have in the next months.

Staff Association: Beyond the social consequences for the fellows themselves, supervisors, team leaders and colleagues are concerned about the increased workload for other personnel. Will they have to do the work themselves that will not be done by the fellows who have left?

Director general: Consideration is being given to optimizing the workforce in general, including also the categories of associated members of personnel. Of course, if we reduce the number of project associates and fellows, we cannot do the same work in the same time frame. But there is no magic solution. We shall first keep within a strict timeline the priority projects that are in the implementation phase, such as LIU and HL-LHC, and it will be necessary to accept minor delays on other projects in the longer term.

In addition, when the European strategy for particle physics is developed and approved by Council in May 2020, we will reconsider the priorities for future projects on the basis of the new roadmap.

For the moment the situation is quite fluid with quite strong financial constraints.

Staff Association: We understand that the Directorate is looking for savings and budget cuts in all directions.  Do you intend to further increase these cuts in the budgets of the fellows? Will you reach other categories of personnel? What impact on the personnel in general?

Director general: There will be no impact on the personnel budget. We will only touch the material budget, with a limited impact on the M2P part. I want to remind you that at the end of 2016 we presented to Council and obtained its support for 80 new staff (“titulaires”) posts because we had considered that the deadlines and workload required this reinforcement of staff posts in our workforce.

Staff Association: Finally, we were surprised to learn of this news from the side, without any information to the personnel and without prior concertation with the Staff Association. Cuts in the number of employed members of personnel is still something we should concert together. What is your position on this point?

Director general: We must hold discussion and concertation with the Staff Association. We usually do it because the concertation process is very important to us.

There was no information to the personnel in general because the MTP is under development. Council must have the opportunity to see it first in view of its approval. But I have set the date of 4 July for a presentation to all members of personnel of the news from the June Council, including the MTP and the European strategy.

Staff Association: Admittedly, the development of the MTP is still in progress, but the decision to cut the budget of the fellows has already been taken, and this decision to reduce the number of employed members of personnel has not been concerted.

Director general: Indeed, this decision was both urgent and essential to contain the 2019 budget. This cut was light, but I stand in solidarity first with the fellows whose contract could not be extended beyond two years, but also with the groups and projects that experienced this cut. However, it should be recalled that a large increase in the number of fellows was granted in past years.

For future Fellows Committees, no decision has been taken yet. But the responsibility stays with the department heads to implement savings in their material budget.


We thank the Director general for taking the time to answer our questions. Of course, we remain very vigilant on the impact that the budgetary cuts will have on the personnel, both in numbers and on the employment and association conditions offered, even in case of transfer from the material budget to the personnel budget.


[1] Numbers are not final but will be very close.

by Staff Association