23rd Mar 2018

Higgs particle researchers face layoffs

  • Researchers at CERN discovered the elusive Higgs particle on 4 July, hailed as a major scientific achievement. (Photo: Ars Electronica)

An Italian institute heavily involved in the discovery of the Higgs particle is facing layoffs as the state slashes public spending on science to balance the budget.

Italy’s National Institute for Nuclear Physics (INFN) was informed of the budget cuts two days after the Higgs particle was spotted. The discovery is considered one of the greatest scientific achievements in the past century.

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“We have contributed heavily to these experiments,” the institute's president, Fernando Ferroni, told EUobserver from Rome.

The INFN devoted around 450 researchers to Cern’s large hadron collider (LHC) that runs underground through France and Switzerland. INFN scientists and students were working on a number of projects, including the Atlas and compact muon solenoid (CMS) experiments. Both Atlas and CMS helped track down the elusive particle.

Ferroni said he learned of the cuts during the evening of Friday to Saturday following the discovery on 4 July. “Nobody had warned us,” he said.

The cuts would slash €9 million from its 2012 budget and then an additional €24 for both of 2013 and 2014. Its total annual operation budget is around €250 million.

Around 10 percent of its technical and administrative staff could be made redundant. For every five researchers who retire, only one would be replaced.

Nature magazine, a London-based peer-reviewed scientific journal, says the institute’s participation in the LHC netted Italian companies contracts worth hundreds of thousands of euros.

Ferroni sent a letter addressed to Italy’s President Giorgio Napolitano on 10 July asking him to reconsider the proposed cuts. Napolitano responded positively, said Ferroni, but any legislative decision that would enforce the proposed cuts will still take place sometime after the summer holidays.

Meanwhile, Ferroni said the announcement has had a negative impact on young Italian researchers who are already leaving the country to seek opportunities elsewhere in Europe.

“If we lose our students, we’ll lose everything,” said Ferroni. Young Italian researchers are currently going to France, Spain, Germany and the UK. The institute receives around €12 million in EU-funds.

The European Commission has taken a guarded view on cuts to national science budgets in general. Research commissioner Maire Geoghegan-Quinn told this website that “we would be shooting ourselves in the foot if we cut science spending”.

Meanwhile, the European Commission announced on Tuesday (17 July), proposals it claims will boost research throughout Europe by removing barriers to the “single market”.

It also wants to finalise its 12 year-old plans to create a European research area (ERA) that would allow researchers, scientific knowledge and technology to flow freely throughout the EU.

“Its time has come, it now must be turned into a reality,” Geoghegan-Quinn told reporters in Brussels.

The commissioner believes increasing the effectiveness of national research systems, improving cross-border co-operation, and developing a more open labour market for researchers would help the ERA become a reality in 2014.

Quinn said the EU is lagging behind when it comes to impact of its research and that less than 1 percent of national research funding is currently co-ordinated across borders. The Commission believes the ERA would help generate around 1 million more jobs a year by 2030.

Articles published by EU-funded researchers in scientific publications would also need to be free of charge and accessible to everyone.

"Taxpayers should not have to pay twice for scientific research and they need seamless access to raw data,” said digital agenda commissioner Neelie Kroes.

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