"Big Bang" research center opens membership to world

GENEVA (Reuters) - Europe’s “Big Bang” particle research organization CERN, now conducting mankind’s biggest scientific experiment, is to open membership to all countries who qualify to join.

A scientist stands in front of pictures of the first successful collisions at full power at the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) experience control room of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Meyrin, near Geneva March 30, 2010. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

Until now, the 56-year-old center near Geneva on the borders of France and Switzerland with a 10 billion Swiss franc ($8.7 billion) annual budget has admitted only European states as full members, although many others take part in its work.

“This is a giant leap for particle physics that recognizes the increasing globalization of the field,” said Michel Spiro, president of CERN’s ruling council, which made the decision at the weekend.

Rolf Heuer, director-general of the body whose scientists have won a raft of Nobel prizes and where the World Wide Web was invented in 1989, said the change reflected global interest in research into the birth of the universe.

The change will not necessarily mean more money coming into CERN, whose budget is fixed for five years and then shared among its members, according to spokesman James Gillies.

But it will mean that there is a potential source of extra revenue for the organization, which critics say swallows huge funds that could be used for more practical purposes.

Supporters, and the governments who vote its budget, say there are many economic and health spin-offs from its work.

Founded in 1954 by 12 European countries with the aim of restoring the continent’s role in physics research after the ravages of World War Two, CERN -- the European Organization for Nuclear Research -- currently has 20 members.

But it also has nearly 8,000 scientists from around 80 countries working in or with its programs.

Cosmic origins research is the focus for CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, in operation since March 30 in a 27-km (16.8 mile) oval tunnel deep underground, in which elementary particles are smashed together at the speed of light.

The collisions recreate events that happened a fraction of a second after the primeval explosion some 13.7 billion years ago that brought the universe into being.

Six non-European nations are CERN observer members -- India, Israel, Japan, Russia, Turkey and the United States -- as well as the European Commission and the U.N. educational, scientific and cultural organization UNESCO.

Among these, both Israel and Turkey are already on course to become full members -- probably with non-observers Cyprus, Serbia and Slovenia -- by the end of the year.

The plans provide for observers to be gradually replaced by a new category of associate members.

Like observers, these will have no voting rights on the council but, also like observers, will have to take a share of CERN’s budget. However, the announcement said, associate status would be a halfway house to full membership.

Editing by Jonathan Lynn