Building scientific resilience

8 May 2019

New political landscapes make international organisations in science more vital than ever, argues John Womersley.

Brest-Litovsk, Utrecht, Westphalia… at first sight, intergovernmental treaties belong more to the world of Bismarck and Napoleon than that of modern science. Yet, in March this year we celebrated the signing of a new treaty establishing the world’s largest radio telescope, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA). Why use a tool of 19th-century great-power politics to organise a 21st century big-science project?

Large-science projects like SKA require multi-billion budgets and decades-long commitment. Their resources must come from many countries, and they need mutual assurance for all contributors that none will renege. The board for SKA, of which I was formerly chair, rapidly concluded that only an intergovernmental organisation could give the necessary stability. It is a very European approach, born of our need to bring together many smaller countries. But it is flexible and resilient.

Of course there are other ways to do this. A European Research Infrastructure Consortium (ERIC) is a lighter weight, faster way to set up an intergovernmental research organisation and is the model that we have used for the European Spallation Source (ESS) in Sweden. The ERIC is part of European Union (EU) legislation and provides many of the benefits in VAT and purchasing rules that an international convention or treaty would, without a convoluted approval process. Once the UK (one of the 13 ESS member nations) withdraws from the EU, it will need legislation to recognise the status of ERICs, just as non-EU Switzerland and Norway have done.

Research facilities can also be run by organisations without any intergovernmental authority: charities, not-for-profit companies or university consortia. This may seem quick and agile, but it is risky. For example, the large US telescope projects TMT and GMT are university-led and have been able to get started, but it seems that US federal involvement will now be essential for their success.

In fact, US participation in international organisations is often an issue because it requires senate approval. The last time this happened for a science project was the ITER fusion experiment, which today is making good progress but had a rocky start. The EU is one of ITER’s seven member entities and its involvement is facilitated via EUROfusion – one of eight European intergovernmental research organisations that are members of EIROforum. Most were established decades ago, and their stable structure has helped them invest in major new facilities such as ESO’s European Extremely Large Telescope.

So international treaty-based science organisations are great for delivering big-science projects, while also promoting understanding between the science communities of different countries. In the aftermath of the Second World War that was really important, and was a founding motivation for CERN. More recently, the SESAME light source in Jordan adopted the CERN model to bring the Middle East’s scientific communities together.

Today the word faces new political challenges, and international treaties don’t do much to address the growing gap between angry, disenfranchised voters and an educated, internationally minded “elite”. We scientists often see nationalism as the problem, but the issue is more one of populism – and by being international we merely seem remote. We are used to speaking about outreach,  but we also need to think seriously about “in-reach” within our own countries and regions, to engage better with groups such as Trump voters and Brexit supporters.

There’s also the risk that too much stability can become rigidity. Organisations like SKA or ESS aim to provide room for negotiation and for substantial amounts of contributions to be made in-kind. They are free of commitments such as pension schemes and, in the case of SKA, membership levels are tied to the size of a country’s astronomy community and not to GDP. Were a future, global project like a Future Circular Collider to be hosted at CERN, a purpose-built intergovernmental agreement would surely be the best way to manage it. CERN is the archetype of intergovernmental organisations in science, and offers great stability in the face of political upheavals such as Brexit. Its challenge today is to think outside the box.

The same applies to all big projects in physics today. Our future prosperity and ability to address major challenges depend on investments in large, cutting-edge research infrastructures. Intergovernmental organisations provide the framework for those investments to flourish.

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