Cern faces cost cuts
Geneva - Europe's particle research centre Cern, engaged in a high-profile programme investigating the origins of the cosmos, faces a sharp cut in its budget over the next five years, officials said on Wednesday.
Cern spokesperson James Gillies said the impending move - effectively imposed by the 20-nation organisation's member governments - would have only minor effect on the operation of the LHC "Big Bang" machine for which it is famous.
But staff association chief Gianni Deroma said the cuts he put at around 9.5% from 2011 to 2015 "could ruin all the efforts made so far and the marvellous first results in the LHC" - the 27km underground Large Hadron Collider.
Scientists and technical staff staged a protest outside Cern's main building on the Franco-Swiss border near Geneva during the day - while a big particle detector built there was being prepared nearby for a 20-year mission in space.
Cuts requested by several countries funding Cern were understood to be part of overall efforts by European governments to slash spending in their drive for recovery from the global economic and financial crisis of the past two years.
In response, Cern director-general Rolf Heuer came up with a budget removing - under different headings - a total of 478 million Swiss francs ($464m) from the total of five billion francs ($4.8bn) he had originally sought to cover costs over the next five years.
The staff, backed by their colleagues at other research bodies including the European Space Agency, say slashing science budgets will reduce innovation and job creation, thus damaging economic recovery in Europe.
In a message to staff after a meeting of the body's finance committee, Heuer said his strategy had been to protect the LHC programme but indicated that it might suffer a slight slowdown.
"This is not going to make much difference in the medium term but there will obviously be a minor effect in the short-term," said Gillies. There was no immediate indication if jobs might be lost.
The LHC smashes particles together at near the speed of light to recreate the primordial chaos nano-seconds after the "Big Bang" 13.7 billion years ago which led to creation of the universe and everything in it.
It was already due to be shut down from the end of 2011 to the start of 2013 to prepare for a doubling of the speed of collisions, and Gilles said this timetable would be kept.
By monitoring the collisions, many millions of which have already been staged since the machine was started up at the end of March, scientists hope to solve major mysteries of the cosmos - like how matter came together to form mass.
But they are also aiming to unveil the invisible dark matter they say makes up 23% of the universe - against the 5% that can be seen - and learn if ideas about the shape of the cosmos, like string theory, have a basis in fact.
A similar mission will be performed from the International Space Station from next February by the detector, the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, loaded during the day onto a cargo plane at Geneva airport for transport to the US.