First CERN Staff Member, then User, then Director General and, finally, CERN Alumnus: Rolf Heuer has spent his professional life dealing with CERN and its people, taking on the greatest of all responsibilities for the Laboratory.
In 2007, when he was appointed to the directorship, both the world and CERN were in pretty good shape. However, the financial downturn in Europe started soon after and in 2008 an incident seriously affected the LHC machine. “Obviously, I had to adapt to the new challenges as the strategic vision I had had at the beginning could not be applied anymore,” explains Rolf Heuer. “I got involved much more in diplomatic issues, as I had to make sure that, despite the economic crisis, we would get all member state contributions. It was very important to establish personal contacts with people in charge and policy makers in the various countries, in particular those that were suffering a lot from the financial crisis. I also pushed to enlarge the membership of CERN, with the publication of the enlargement paper in 2010”.
This whole diplomatic activity was certainly hard work for the former DG but he now happily admits that, in this job, he was helped a lot by what he calls a silent ‘army’: the CERN Alumni spread around the world whom he would meet in high-level meetings and who would just stand up, without being solicited and advocate for CERN. “It gives you a fantastic feeling when you do not need to convince your audience and instead, somebody else, not the CERN Director-General, says how good CERN is and the importance of its mission,” he confirms. “I always thought that the true wealth of CERN resides in its people, and not just present collaborators but also people who were here two, ten or twenty years ago. They are a powerful community of enthusiastic ambassadors!”
Today, Rolf Heuer continues his own mission as ambassador of the CERN “collaboration model” around the world and he says: “Thanks to my experience at CERN, my diplomatic skills are much improved, I also met very interesting characters in politics, with whom I would otherwise never have come into contact. You grow tremendously with this job. After CERN I could handle people better than I was able to before. And when you terminate your mandate as DG you are still well-known, people introduce you as “Former CERN DG”, it comes with a lot of weight”.
Are you tired of CERN? “No! Certainly not! It’s true, seven years as a Director-General is quite a long time, as you have essentially no free time, the only free time you have is during the Christmas break. And during your mandate as Director-General you can’t carry out research. However, what you can do is strive to shape the international research landscape, at least for the short-term period. You have a certain power, people listen to you, they even follow you.”
Speaking about your vision for the future, in today’s uncertain landscape for accelerator physics, what would you tell the younger generation of physics students? “At CERN you learn how to deal with small projects within very large projects and you learn about state of the art technology and international interactions”, he replies. “This gives you skills that are much valued also in the private sector. Particle physics is a particularly fertile field to acquire all these capabilities within, for example, a PhD period.”
And he concludes: “CERN is more than just particle physics, the role of CERN is also very much promoting research and education. Its people, including CERN Alumni, are a fantastic vehicle to promote fundamental science and CERN values around the world”