We don’t have secrets at CERN. Here’s why other scientists shouldn’t either.

By Glyn Kirby

I’ve been working at CERN, the international particle accelerator lab perhaps best known as the home of the Large Hadron Collider, for over 25 years. As a publicly funded lab, we’re open about everything we’re working on, and anyone from academia to industry is welcome to use it. With over 20 countries contributing a percentage of their GDP to our budget, we don’t need to market our knowledge to support our work. That means we can share our results and the technology we develop right away, and doing so is one of the ways we give back to the countries that fund us. CERN’s level of transparency about ongoing projects is unusual in the notoriously secretive world of science, but it shouldn’t be. I’ve seen first-hand that openness in science can bring great things and I’d like to see more of it, especially from publicly funded research bodies.

My collaborators and I design equipment for high-energy physics research, upgrading and building the next generation of particle accelerators. While our goal is pushing the boundaries of particle physics, we also put our latest technology in the capable hands of researchers and companies working on society’s most pressing issues. This happens through formal collaborations with industry partners, but also through outreach and exchange. Companies and researchers come visit us at CERN, and we share regular updates on social media to keep them informed of our latest developments. Through these partners’ solutions to the challenges of our day, we pass the benefits of our technology on to the public. Seeing this happen again and again makes clear that sharing research openly benefits not just other scientists, but everyone.



For instance, we share technologies we develop for particle physics with scientists working on new and innovative cancer treatments. Take proton therapy, a treatment in which technicians fire a beam of protons into a cancer patient’s tumor. Having been stripped of their electrons and rendered unstable, the protons fall apart, destroying the cancer cells. The same technology we use to guide particles around our accelerator helps guide these protons through patients’ bodies to the tumor.

We’re also sharing our findings from CERN with scientists who are building a world-changing renewable energy device. This so-called tokamak could soon produce power through controlled nuclear fusion—essentially recreating what’s going on inside the sun in a box. If this can be done successfully, it would solve all the world’s power problems. The fuel is water, and a tablespoon of it would provide you with a lifetime of power. There are a number of groups working on this, but this one at Tokamak Energy is unique in that they’re focusing on making compact tokamaks. For these smaller devices, they need higher magnetic fields, just as we do for our particle accelerators. They’re understandably eager to hear about the magnets that we’re building for the next generation of the particle accelerator, which are two to three times stronger than any that exist today.

With fascinating projects like this in mind, we make an extra effort to share updates on what we’re doing at CERN on social media, where anyone can see it. This gets information out faster, and with more detail than might make its way into papers months down the line.

The work we do at CERN isn’t just for CERN, or even just for physicists—though physicists’ growing understanding of matter and the universe is of course worthy in its own right. It’s for everyone. Other scientists doing important work, be they at universities or in industry, should always be looped in about what’s going on at CERN, in detail and in real time. The funding landscape at CERN makes it easy for us to do that. We don’t have to keep trade secrets to sell our products. For others, dissolving secrecy in science will require cultural and institutional changes, but our work shows it’s worth exploring ways to make these shifts happen. Great things have been coming out of partnership between science and industry at CERN for decades. Imagine what even more openness in the scientific community will achieve.

 

To follow Kirby's work, visit his ongoing projects on ResearchGate.