Careers: Standing out from the crowd

The European Committee for Future Accelerators is assessing individual recognition in large collaborations, not just for the benefit of early-career researchers but for the field as a whole.

Big physics

Advances in particle physics are driven by well-defined innovations in accelerators, instrumentation, electronics, computing and data-analysis techniques. Yet our ability to innovate depends strongly on the talents of individuals, and on how we continue to attract and foster the best people. It is therefore vital that, within today’s ever-growing collaborations, individual researchers feel that their contributions are recognised adequately within the scientific community at large.

Looking back to the time before large accelerators, individual recognition was not an issue in our field. Take Rutherford’s revolutionary work on the nucleus or, more recently, Cowan and Reines’ discovery of the neutrino – there were perhaps a couple of people working in a lab, at most with a technician, yet acknowledgement was at a global scale. There was no need for project management; individual recognition was spot-on and instinctive.

As high-energy physics progressed, the needs of experiments grew. During the 1980s, experiments such as UA1 and UA2 at the Super Proton Synchrotron (SPS) involved institutions from around five to eight countries, setting in motion a “natural evolution” of individual recognition. From those experiments, in which mentoring in family-sized groups played a big role, emerged spontaneous leaders, some of whom went on to head experimental physics groups, departments and laboratories. Moving into the 1990s, project management and individual recognition became even more pertinent. In the experiments at the Large Electron–Positron collider (LEP), the number of physicists, engineers and technicians working together rose by an order of magnitude compared to the SPS days, with up to 30 participating institutions and 20 countries involved in a given experiment.

Today, with the LHC experiments providing an even bigger jump in scale, we must ask ourselves: are we making our immense scientific progress at the expense of individual recognition?

Group goals

Large collaborations have been very successful, and the discovery of the Higgs boson at the LHC had a big impact in our community. Today there are more than 5000 physicists from institutions in more than 40 countries working on the main LHC experiments, and this mammoth scale demands a change in the way we nurture individual recognition and careers. In scientific collaborations with a collective mission, group goals are placed above personal ambition. For example, many of us spend hundreds of hours in the pit or carry out computing and software tasks to make sure our experiments deliver the best data, even though some of this collective work isn’t always “visible”. However, there are increasing challenges nowadays, particularly for young scientists who need to navigate the difficulties of balancing their aspirations. Larger collaborations mean there are many more PhD students and postdocs, while the number of permanent jobs has not increased equivalently; hence we also need to prepare early-career researchers for a non-academic career.

To fully exploit the potential of large collaborations, we need to bring every single person to maximum effectiveness by motivating and stimulating individual recognition and career choices. With this in mind, in spring 2018 the European Committee for Future Accelerators (ECFA) established a working group to investigate what the community thinks about individual recognition in large collaborations. Following an initial survey addressing leaders of several CERN and CERN-recognised experiments, a community-wide survey closed on 26 October with a total of 1347 responses.

Community survey

Participants expressed opinions on several statements related to how they perceive systems of recognition in their collaboration. More than 80% of the participants are involved in LHC experiments and researchers from most European countries were well represented. Just less than half (44%) were permanent staff members at their institute, with the rest comprising around 300 PhD students and 440 postdocs or junior staff. Participants were asked to indicate their level of agreement with a list of statements related to individual recognition. Each answer was quantified and the score distributions were compared between groups of participants, for instance according to career position, experiment, collaboration size, country, age, gender and discipline. Some initial findings are listed over the page, while the full breakdown of results – comprising hundreds of plots – is available at https://ecfa.web.cern.ch.

Conferences: “The collaboration guidelines for speakers at conferences allow me to be creative and demonstrate my talents.” Overall, participants from the LHCb collaboration agree more with this statement compared to those from CMS and especially ATLAS. For younger participants this sentiment is more pronounced. Respondents affirmed that conference talks are an outstanding opportunity to demonstrate to the broader community their creativity and scientific insight, and are perceived to be one of the most important aspects of verifying the success of a scientist.

Publications: “For me it is important to be included as an author of
all collaboration-wide papers.”
Although the effect is less pronounced for participants from very large collaborations, they value being included as authors on collaboration-wide publications. The alphabetic listing of authors is also supported, and at all career stages. Participants had divided opinions when it came to alternatives.

Assigned responsibilities: “I perceive that profiles of positions with responsibility are well known outside the particle-physics community.” The further away from the collaboration, the more challenging it becomes to inform people about the role of a convener, yet the selection as a convenor is perceived to be very important in verifying the success of a scientist in our field. The majority of the participating early-career researchers are neutral or do not agree with the statement that the process of selecting conveners is sufficiently transparent and accessible.

Technical contributions: “I perceive that my technical contributions get adequate recognition in the particle-physics community.”  Hardware and software technical work is at the core of particle-physics experiments, yet it remains challenging to recognise these contributions inside, but especially outside, the collaboration.

Scientific notes: “Scientific notes on analysis methods, detector and physics simulations, novel algorithms, software developments, etc, would be valuable for me as a new class of open publications to recognise individual contributions.” Although participants have very diverse opinions when it comes to making the internal collaboration notes public, they would value the opportunity to write down their novel and creative technical ideas in a new class of public notes.

Beyond disseminating the results of the survey, ECFA will reflect on how it can help to strengthen the recognition of individual achievements in large collaborations. The LHC experiments and other large collaborations have expressed openness to enter a dialogue on the topic, and will be invited by ECFA to join a pan-collaboration working group. This will help to relate observations from the survey to current practices in the collaborations, with the aim of keeping particle physics fit and healthy towards the next generation of experiments.

About the author

Archana Sharma CERN and Jorgen D’Hondt Vrije Universiteit Brussel and ECFA chairperson.