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OECD report praises innovation at CERN

23 July 2014

In early June, 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 involved directly, the report focuses on two of CERN’s projects: the development of superconducting dipole magnets for the LHC and the organization’s contribution to hadron therapy.

As many as 1232 superconducting dipoles – each 14 m long and weighing 35 tonnes – steer the particle beams in the LHC. Following the R&D phase in the years 1985–2001, a call to tender was issued for the series production of the dipoles. R&D had 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 (CERN Courier October 2006 p28).

The report notes that although 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 of the “intellectual added value” from the project stemmed from CERN, contractors interviewed for the study reported their experience with the organization 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 using beams of protons, or heavier nuclei such as carbon, to kill tumours. 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, which started in 1996 and submitted a complete accelerator-system design in 1999 (CERN CourierOctober 1998 p20). CERN’s involvement in hadron therapy is also a story of collaboration – the laboratory retains close links with CNAO, the National Centre for Oncological Hadron Therapy in Italy, and the MedAustron centre in Austria and others (CERN Courier December 2011 p37).

The report also praises the longevity of CERN, which allows it to “recyle” its infrastructure for new projects, and the CERN staff. 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.

• For the full report, see www.oecd.org/sti/sci-tech/CERN-case-studies.pdf.

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