Hahn’s False Move

Austria’s near withdrawal from CERN had Europe’s scientific community up in arms

Minister of Science Johannes Hahn, Chancellor Faymann

Minister of Science Johannes Hahn (left) in the press conference on May 18 when Chancellor Faymann (right) overruled his decision to withdraw Austria from CERN | Photo: Matthias Cremer

Research into the origins of life is at the heart of the scientific prospect. But navigating the seas of research and its stormy implications for ministerial budgets is sometimes an art, as Minister of Science and Research Johannes Hahn found out this month.

May 7 was, as one Austrian physicist said, “a dark day for scientists in Austria.” Minister Hahn suddenly announced that, after 50-years of membership, Austria would withdraw from the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), shocking researchers around the world. The decision was in response to budget constraints, the minister said, and would free up badly needed funds for new European projects.

According to the plan, Austria’s €16 million contribution would be withdrawn by 2010, bringing to an end the country’s participation in one of the most respected scientific research centers in the world. Hahn’s decision would leave Austrian-held CERN positions at risk, and Austrians students would no longer be accepted for assistantships. More alarming perhaps, would be the damage to Austria’s reputation as a collaborator in international research projects.

“Austria’s scientific community was in complete shock and awe,” said Dr. Anton Rebhan, deputy head of the Institute of Theoretical Physics at Vienna’s Technology University. “No one in the community thought such a step was even possible,” he added, articulating the disbelief that enveloped scientists after the announcement.

Though Austria was not one of the 12 founding members of CERN in 1956, it joined soon afterwards in 1959. The timing of this announcement was “ironic,” Dr. Rebhan said, as this was the 50th anniversary of Austrian membership, and also marked the start of the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest particle accelerator, which scientists hope will allow a “reenactment” of the creation of the universe.

The implications of the decision were huge. Over 185 Austrians are working at CERN, either conducting research or as full-time staff, making Hahn’s decision a potential career-destroying move for some of the country’s most able physicists, and for those who hoped to one day work at the Swiss center.

Hahn revealed his plan to the bafflement of scientists. “CERN contributions are consuming too much of the ministry’s budget,” Hahn said. His decision would make Austria the first developed country to leave CERN since Spain pulled out in 1969, which later rejoined when resources allowed in 1983.

“CERN launched Europe to the forefront of scientific research,” said Dr. Rebhan. “The building of the Hadron Collider has put Europe ahead of the U.S. and Russia in scientific development for the first time.” Founded in 1954, Swiss-based CERN is the world’s largest particle physics laboratory, and employs over 10,000 scientists and engineers and represents 580 universities. CERN projects have been awarded the Nobel Prize in physics twice, in 1984 and 1992.

During the press conference, Hahn argued that Austria’s role at CERN was insignificant and the burdens disproportionate given that 70 per cent of his ministry’s budget for international projects went to CERN. Austria’s investments in research would be best used elsewhere, he said, and further contended that CERN funds were inefficiently used. Austrian involvement in CERN was “not a hostage situation,” Hahn said. Just because it had been an affiliate for so long did not mean it had to stay one.

But there were holes in Hahn’s reasoning: He had initially overstated Austria’s contribution – putting the yearly price tag at €20 million rather than the actual €16 million announced during his press conference, thus exaggerating the burden. And CERN directors say Austria has had more impact there than its minor contribution might indicate – accounting for only 2.24 per cent of the total contributions.

Austrians hold prominent positions at CERN; Fifty-six Austrians have fixed contracts, many are sent for temporary positions and summer schools, and Austria is quite successful in its CERN-sponsored PhD programs, enjoying a high acceptance rate among candidates.

“Working at CERN is a great opportunity for young students in Austria,” said Dr. Rebhan. If Minister Hahn’s decision had gone through, many positions would be off limits to Austrians, including PhD programs and fellowship positions for those doing post-doctorate work.

“There would be no future there for young students,” Dr. Rebhan said, the fading alarm still evident in his voice.

The country also has a respectable biotechnology cluster and a world-class quantum physics research institutions, rebuffing Hahn’s implicit assertion that Austrian’s had no palpable stake in CERN’s research.

More importantly, the contributions going to CERN do not enter a black hole: CERN-sponsored projects are contracted to private firms, largely based on national contributions. Austrian companies – and thus employees and the greater economy – benefit from the government’s contribution. Austrian firms currently run over 30 projects directly funded by CERN. One particular Austrian firm benefits greatly; insurance giant UNIQA currently covers the health insurance of all CERN employees, Austrian and otherwise – a contract that, according to Dr. Rebhan, brings the company’s yearly revenues to 2.5 times the amount that Austria contributes each year.

Also, Hahn’s implication that CERN was consuming too much of the budget was deceptive: By using its percentage of international funds (70 per cent), the number looks enormous. Overall, however, only a fraction of 1 per cent of the Science Ministry’s total funds are set aside for CERN.

The only argument that might have held water was the efficiency of CERN’s investments, which has been questioned in the past. But with no stakeholders involved in the decision-making process, no experts were there to correct his mistakes.

After Hahn’s press conference, the Austrian scientific community was in shock, and scientists around the world were up in arms. Local scientists launched a website to protest the action – http://sos.teilchen.at – and gathered 32,461 signatures in a fortnight. The academic community feared that scientists would shy away from Austria, producing a brain drain of young students. Others were also worried: The credibility of Austria as an international team player was likely to be severely damaged.

Ultimately, Hahn would have needed a majority vote in parliament before making such a decision, unlikely with the political infighting between Hahn’s center right People’s Party (ÖVP) and its center left coalition partner, the Social Democrats (SPÖ) who hold the chancellorship. So, Minister Hahn’s decision was made unilaterally when, in fact, he had no right to do so.

Although Hahn tried to disregard the public uproar, his boss – SPÖ party chief and Chancellor Werner Faymann – put a quick end to the debacle. He overruled his minister’s proposal, and Hahn was forced to stand next to his boss, awkward and embarrassed, as Faymann informed the public just 10 days later that Austria would in fact be staying with CERN. Hahn’s decision had put Austria’s reputation at stake, the Chancellor said, and that the “higher interests” of the Republic held precedence over his Minister’s decision.

In Hahn’s defense, his budget for this year was constrained; Though the funds given to the Ministry of Science and Research were higher, costs have increased substantially, and strategic decisions needed to be made.

But it seems Hahn’s decision was far from strategic, as the angry reaction revealed. Withdrawing membership of such a renowned institution would ruin Austrian careers and damage domestic scientific research immeasurably, according to experts.

More fundamentally, Hahn’s decision may have been just another move in the political chess game between the ÖVP and SPÖ – in this case, the ÖVP’s revenge against its coalition partner, following the SPÖ announcement that Austrian teachers would be required to work extra hours at no extra pay, causing an uproar at schools throughout Austria. The ÖVP-dominated teachers union forced the SPÖ-led Ministry of Education into a compromise, but the bitterness lingered.

Also, last fall’s SPÖ-sponsored abolition of university tuitions fees continues to be an irritation for university faculty and staff, of which many are ÖVP members. Hahn’s action may have been a kind of financial retaliation against the sudden drop in finances resulting from the abolished tuition fees.

However, Hahn’s embarrassed looks as he stood next to Faymann at the press conference on May 18 were a suitable measure of the degree of his error in judgment.

Though unsuccessful, however, the attack on CERN highlights bigger problems in Austrian politics; Recent moves by both the SPÖ and ÖVP have upset the larger academic community, giving Austrians the impression that politicians have lost all concern for education and research. Funds for PhD programs were suspended recently as the parties squabbled over this year’s budget, and the fight at the Ministry of Education led to strikes among teachers and students. Meanwhile, Austria’s universities remain overcrowded and under-funded.

Difficult economic times create their own pressures, but also demand tactical and long-term outlooks. On the world stage, many leaders seem to have acknowledged that research and development is the hope for future economic growth and sustained prosperity – and have increased their funding accordingly. In Europe, coordinated research may be the only way to stay at the forefront of science. It is in Austria’s interest, say scientists, that the political class shares this insight, and refrains from falling back on provincial reasoning.

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