This week the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) published their Global Science Forum (GSF) report, "The Impacts of Large Research Infrastructures on Economic Innovation and on Society: Case studies at CERN". The report praises the culture of innovation at CERN, and finds that the laboratory has "evident links to economic, political, educational and social advances of the past half-century."
Through in-depth, confidential interviews with the people directly involved, the report focuses on two CERN projects: the development of superconducting dipole magnets for the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) and CERN's contribution to hadron therapy - the use of high-energy particle beams to kill cancer cells.
Some 1232 superconducting dipoles - each 14 metres long and weighing 35 tonnes - steer beams of particles in the LHC. Designing and testing these dipoles took from 1985 to 2001, when a call to tender was issued for the production of 1200. R&D for the magnets included building a proof-of-concept prototype, meeting the considerable challenge of designing superconducting cables made of niobium-titanium (NbTi), and designing a complex cryostat system to keep the magnets cold enough to operate under superconducting conditions.
The report notes that though innovation at the cutting edge of technology is "inherently difficult, costly, time consuming and risky", CERN mitigated those risks by keeping direct responsibility, decision-making and control for the project. While almost all the "intellectual added value" from the project stemmed from CERN, contractors interviewed for the study reported the CERN experience to be positive. CERN's flexibility and ability to innovate attracts creative, ambitious individuals such that "success breeds success in innovation," note the report’s authors.
The second case study covered CERN's contribution to hadron therapy – where beams of protons, or heavier nuclei such as carbon, are used to kill tumours.
CERN has been investigating techniques for medical physics since 1986. The authors attribute CERN's success in pushing through medical research to its relatively "flat" hierarchy, where students and junior members of staff can share ideas freely with heads of department or management.
A key project was the three-year Proton Ion Medical Machine Study (PIMMS), which started in 1996, and submitted a complete accelerator-system design in 1999. CERN's involvement in hadron therapy is a story of collaboration; the laboratory retains close links with the National Centre for Oncological Hadron Therapy (CNAO) in Pavia, Italy, the MEDAUSTRON project in Austria and others.
The OECD concludes that CERN's special status as an international organization funded by contributions from member states, allows it to play a part in determining its own future, through drafting the European Strategy for Particle Physics, for example.
The report also praises the longevity of CERN, which allow it to repurpose its infrastructure for new projects, and the CERN staff – some 2300 people among them scientists, engineers and technicians. This manpower is described as a "great asset" for the organization, which can be deployed in response to strategic “top down” decisions or in response to initiatives that arise in a “bottom up” mode.
The OECD's mission is to promote policies that will improve the economic and social well-being of people around the world. As CERN intensifies its international outreach in high-energy physics and related disciplines, the economic and societal impact of our laboratory can only increase.