By Pádraig Hoare
Ireland must apply for membership of the world-renowned European Organisation for Nuclear Research (Cern) in order to combat the effect of Brexit and boost university rankings.
That is according to Cork senator Colm Burke as the campaign to join Cern gains momentum, after Ireland recently became a member of the European Space Observatory.
Irish science bodies, IT organisations, business representatives, and politicians have echoed the call of Mr Burke, who said Ireland needs to become a full member of Cern or risk missing out on €300m of contracts.
Founded in 1954, the Cern laboratory near Geneva, Switzerland, was one of Europe’s first joint ventures and now has 22 member states.
There are 21 European countries, as well as Israel, in Cern, whose main area of research is particle physics — the study of the fundamental constituents of matter and the forces acting between them.
Cern is also home to one of the world’s most impressive feats of engineering, the Hadron Collider, the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator with a 27km ring of superconducting magnets.
Cern has thousands of staff laboratories and has hosted tens of thousands of fellows from the scientific and engineering fields.
It is also involved in advanced cancer therapy, IT, biomedical, and other research. The World Wide Web began as a Cern project in 1989.
Membership can cost up to €10m annually, which is thought to be the over-riding reason why Ireland has not become a member.
The Government has said it will “decide on Ireland’s membership of other international research organisations including that of Cern” as part of Project Ireland 2040.
However, Mr Burke said membership consideration was a matter for now, adding to academics and business leader voices who this week said Cern should be on the Government’s radar after the ESO membership.
“When a country is a member of Cern, its universities have better access. Our challenge is to up the status of our universities because it is a very competitive market.
“Membership would be wholly beneficial to the country nationally, but also in Cork with the likes of UCC, CIT and Tyndall, where there is world-class research already happening,” he said.
The Fine Gael MEP said it was also imperative as Brexit loomed. “The time is now, not later, with Brexit coming.
"We will be the only English-speaking nation in the EU and it is vitally important we capitalise on the opportunities available, like Cern membership,” he said.
Fianna Fáil spokesman on science and technology, James Lawless said membership of the ESO would help stem a brain drain of Irish researchers going abroad, and attention must now turn towards Cern membership.
Cern director general, Fabiola Gianotti has said the organisation wants Ireland to join.
The Institute of Physics in Ireland, a long-time Cern membership advocate, has said a person employed in a physics-based industry in Ireland contributes €138,273 on average a year in added value.
The Irish Science Teachers Association has said Ireland’s presence in Cern would allow researchers to achieve similar discoveries that had changed the face of science and medicine in recent years.