Changing the culture of big science

29 May 2002

As scientific facilities become larger and more costly, so the management challenge grows. CERN director-general Luciano Maiani says that lessons learned from the LHC cost overrun will ultimately benefit the Geneva laboratory and help secure its future.


The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is without a doubt the most technologically challenging project that CERN has ever embarked upon. It is also the most costly, and it was approved under the strictest financial conditions that CERN has ever faced. This should have been cause for the laboratory to reflect on its way of working, but reflection did not come until September last year, when the results of a comprehensive cost-to-completion review showed that CERN would have to find an additional SwFr 850 million for the LHC and its experiments.

CERN is built on a tradition of excellence, in terms of both its personnel and its facilities. In the world of particle physics, the laboratory has a well deserved reputation for building the finest machines. Our first big accelerator, the PS, was completed in 1959 and is still going strong. And had the SPS not been built to CERN’s exacting standards, the Nobel prize-winning antiproton project might never have got off the ground. With the LHC being inaccessibly encased in its cryostat, high standards are needed more than ever. CERN, however, must also become more cost-aware.

Moving forward

At 18% of the material cost, the LHC overrun does not seem excessive for a project of this complexity, and is comparable to the percentage overrun incurred in the construction of the Large Electron Positron (LEP) collider. But the bill for the LHC is three times that for LEP. The lesson we have learned is that contingency in big projects must now be measured in absolute and not percentage terms. Our mistake was that we failed to realize that the scale of the LHC would require new monitoring and control systems at all levels of the laboratory.

Such systems are now being introduced with advice from an External Review Committee. CERN will introduce earned-value management techniques to allow the financial health of the laboratory to be easily monitored at any time, and we will move to full personnel-plus-materials accounting, which will introduce greater transparency. These measures are essential for completing the LHC within the boundaries set by last year’s cost-to-completion review, and they will position CERN well for the longer term.

CERN’s mission is to provide the facilities that its user community wants. In the past, that has meant a diverse range of particle beams serving a wide range of relatively small experiments. With the LHC, our user base has consolidated to give a smaller number of much larger experiments, and we must adapt our facilities accordingly. That means a narrower programme, focused on the LHC. A large part of the required resources can be found by reallocating budget and personnel to the LHC. Further reallocations will come from internal restructuring, postponing the start-up of the LHC until 2007, extending the pay-back period until 2010 and cutting back on accelerator R&D until the LHC is running.

I am convinced that these moves will allow CERN to maintain its tradition of excellence. We continue to host a lively and diverse low-energy programme. The LHC will be the world’s foremost facility for high-energy physics, and by maintaining a minimum R&D base, we are providing a platform for the long term.

However, we are not yet out of the woods. An important part of the resources we plan to reallocate to the LHC has been identified but not yet secured. It will take a coherent effort across the laboratory to ensure that human resources released by the reduction of non-LHC activities are effectively deployed to the LHC. However, we are heading in the right direction, and I have every faith in the ability of CERN’s staff and users to meet the challenge.

The lessons CERN has learned are lessons for us all. The need to measure contingency in absolute terms requires management tools, risk analysis and strategy tuned to the size of the projects, much as we choose our physics instruments in relation to the precision we are aiming to achieve. Time will tell how these considerations can be applied to future projects. For now, however, we have learned our lesson and CERN is set to emerge leaner and fitter to face the future.

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