Review of Irish membership of international research organisations

23 July 2014

Earlier in the year, the Minister for Research and Innovation, Seán Sherlock, announced a review of Ireland’s international engagement on research and innovation, in particular the costs and benefits of membership of international research organisations.

Part of the CMS detector on the LHC at CERN

The Institute of Physics in Ireland prepared cases for membership of two of the most significant organisations, the particle physics laboratory at CERN in Geneva and the European Southern Observatory in Chile. 

The CERN and ESO reviews can be found at http://www.iopireland.org/publications/iopi/page_63375.html and http://www.iopireland.org/publications/iopi/page_63463.html respectively.

These organisations share a number of similar features, being world leaders in their areas of research and benefitting their member states significantly in their engagement with industry, gaining significant economic return to the members.

With both organisations the scope of the return is broad – research at CERN for example has led to significant advances in the health sector with emerging technologies in medical imaging and hadron therapy. Likewise, the construction of some of the largest telescopes in the world has given rise to developments in adaptive optics which find application in the treatment of disorders of the eye.

Membership of the European Space Agency (ESA) has proved highly valuable, with businesses in Ireland winning contracts worth over €80 million since 2000. With around 80 space technology companies in Ireland there is a proven sector here which would have considerable scope to expand with membership of ESO given the complementary nature of their expertise in areas ranging from communications to electronic components. Investment in space technologies tends have a high return, with ESA estimating that every euro invested has a six to seven euro economic dividend.

At CERN, like ESO, there is considerable development in computing facilities, driven by the extraordinary demands of the experiments. Colliding protons in the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), for example, produce about a petabyte of data every second. The storage, manipulation and analysis of such data has produced scientists with unparalleled expertise in a field which is now recognised as vital to the global economy.

For physicists, though, the primary benefit of membership of these organisations is the access to the facilities which would allow them to carry out research at the absolute cutting edge. Highlights from ESO include the plotting of orbits of stars around the black hole at the heart of our galaxy and the first ever image of a planet outside the solar system, while the discovery of the Higgs Boson at CERN must surely be the standout moment of physics in this century. Even more exciting though, are the new developments at both facilities. CERN is already planning its next generation of colliders, while ESO is set to begin construction of the European Extremely Large Telescope, with its giant 40m metre mirror – an instrument which will allow scientists to address many of the most pressing unsolved questions of the universe.