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A global laboratory for the global community

Rolf-Dieter Heuer has been leading one of the world's most famous science labs since January 2009. Photo: CERN (Click to view larger version...)
Rolf-Dieter Heuer has been leading one of the world's most famous science labs since January 2009. Photo: CERN
Since I took up office as CERN's Director General at the beginning of the year, I have had much cause to think about the global nature of big science. My field of particle physics has been global for as long as I can remember, but the nature of globalization in science is changing.

In the past, the particle physics model has been for countries and regions to work unilaterally in the choices of facilities to build, while leaving their doors open to scientists from all over the world. This has led to a robust and healthy field, with strong inter-regional competition and an equally strong sense of cooperation. We compete cooperatively, a concept quite alien in many fields of human endeavour, yet a hallmark of particle physics.

With the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, particle physics is entering a new era. The LHC is unique; a largely European facility open to the scientists of the world. In my opinion, it will be the last of its kind: any future large-scale particle physics facilities will be global from the start, and the funding agencies of the world are already moving in this direction.

In this respect, particle physics and fusion research have much in common. Europe's main facility for fusion research for over 25 years has been the Joint European Torus (JET) in the UK: a European facility open to the scientists of the world. JET has contributed much to fusion research over the years, but will soon hand over the baton as the world's largest nuclear fusion research facility to ITER, a global laboratory for the global community.

The similarities between CERN and ITER don't stop there. The LHC uses superfluid helium technology originally pioneered by the fusion community. In turn, CERN is sharing its expertise in this field with ITER, demonstrating that the cooperative nature of science transcends individual disciplines.

CERN and ITER are both much in the media spotlight, sometimes for good reasons, sometimes for bad. In our case, we have weathered the storm of conspiracy theory and hype, and are poised now to deliver good news about the pursuit of knowledge with the LHC's first physics run beginning later this year. In ITER's case, attention has focused on the long wait for economic fusion energy, and the inevitable difficulties of organizing long-range scientific projects on a global scale. As an optimist, I am confident that ITER will succeed scientifically and politically. As a pragmatist, I will be following developments very closely since, like ITER, particle physics beyond the LHC will be global from the outset.

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