Fundamental research: at the heart of innovation

Mar 12, 2019

The World Wide Web is certainly the best-known innovation to have emerged from CERN, but it’s far from being the only one. That’s because fundamental research plays a vital role in the process of innovation. At an institution like CERN, innovation takes many forms: technological, of course, but also intellectual and social. Consider the latter. Ever since CERN was established, working across cultural boundaries has been the norm. That’s why people of over 100 nationalities can work harmoniously and peacefully here, and it’s why an inclusive working environment is so important.

Our Code of Conduct, the Diversity Office and the Ombud are just a few of the resources that serve to protect and promote diversity and inclusivity at CERN. Initiatives such as these belong every bit as much to the realm of innovation as the World Wide Web, and they’re intrinsic to the world of fundamental research.

Our international nature, along with scientists’ love of meritocracy and disdain for hierarchies, has led to the innovative management structures you see at CERN, particularly in the large experiments, and it has also fostered the culture of global collaboration in particle physics that is so rare in other walks of life. In which other field would rivals share innovative ideas with their competitors? In the 1950s, scientists from Brookhaven National Lab in the US did just that when they came up with a technique for increasing the energy of a particle accelerator and shared it with CERN. A decade later, it was the turn of the Europeans to lend a hand when the nascent National Accelerator Laboratory, now known as Fermilab, was building up its accelerator complex in the US. Such exchanges are common in fundamental research because it’s the goal that counts most. Today, you need look no further than CERN’s contribution to DUNE in the US, and the US contributions to the LHC, to see that this spirit of collaboration is alive and well.

Intellectual innovation is perhaps just another way of saying research. It’s something that we nurture at CERN through a wide range of training programmes to develop human capital. Intellectual innovation manifests itself in myriad ways, from some scientists devising new algorithms to refine their analyses, to others refusing to accept the answer “no”. When the tools don’t exist to tackle the research question at hand, scientists tend to develop them. To take an example from CERN, such perseverance has contributed much to medical applications over the decades.

The social and intellectual innovation that you find at CERN both contribute to technological innovation, and they helped to make CERN fertile ground for Tim Berners-Lee’s ideas thirty years ago. Then as now, CERN was a place at the cutting edge of technology. The Lab had the Internet, and many had computer workstations on their desks. The social structures at CERN allowed Berners-Lee to develop his ideas, and the culture of openness allowed CERN’s Management to make the Web available to all for free. It’s the same culture that allowed CERN to have a touchscreen-operated control system for the SPS in the 1970s, and to foster the development of technologies in fields ranging from aerospace to cultural heritage.

At CERN, it has always been like this. One important thing has changed, however, since the invention of the Web. We now have a formal Knowledge Transfer (KT) group at CERN, which has the task of identifying emerging technologies and ensuring that they not only serve the needs of research, but also go beyond the lab and into society as innovative solutions to contemporary problems.

When Tim Berners-Lee wrote a proposal for what would become the World Wide Web, few really understood where it would lead. Berners-Lee certainly had an idea – when he wrote the world’s first web browser in 1990, he named it “worldwideweb” – but to many of those around him, the early Web’s potential was not immediately obvious. Nevertheless, CERN allowed him to develop his vision, through a combination of his persistence and his supervisor’s recognition of a bright idea, but that was not until 18 months after the initial proposal was made. One can only speculate what might have happened had CERN had a KT group at the end of the 1980s. My feeling is that the end result would have been the same, but that we might just have got there faster. While it’s not the role of the researcher to recognise the potential of an innovation, that’s precisely the kind of expertise our KT group brings to CERN.

You could argue that the Web could have come from anywhere, and indeed the time was right for such an innovation, yet it’s no accident that it came from CERN. Few areas of human endeavour have an ecosystem that combines cutting-edge technology, intellectual rigour and a culture of openness to the same degree as fundamental research. That’s why places like CERN will always be at the heart of innovation.


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