Editorial: Great hope for science

Published in The Hindu on December 24, 2012

The recent decision of the United Nations General Assembly to grant ‘Observer status’ for the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN) is highly commendable. CERN is the first physical sciences research organisation to become an Observer. The development comes a year after CERN and the United Nations Office at Geneva signed a co-operation agreement. Founded in 1954 under the auspices of UNESCO, the research organisation has till date lived up to the U.N. agency’s prime objective of international co-operation in the science and technology sphere. In fact, it has gone beyond its initial mission of restricting its co-operative activities to researchers from the “Allied countries and former Axis countries,” and has today taken on board other countries as members and observers, including India. It has become a benchmark for other large-scale science collaborative projects involving many countries. The fundamental difference between CERN and other international projects is that CERN’s activities go beyond the core area. Not widely known is the important digital library tools it has been sharing with several countries in Africa for empowering and changing the way people access information. The new status and global platform will help the organisation direct and set a course so science and technology will ultimately benefit people.

The U.N. decision comes at a most crucial time when proprietary science is proving to be a great stumbling block in making the fruits of basic scientific research available to all. The wall that divides basic and applied science is getting replaced with a thin line, with certain promising fields coming up at the “intersection of basic research and application.” Molecular biology is one such field. U.S. federal agencies, universities and pharmaceutical companies had to go to great lengths to free up the human genome sequence data generated by the privately-funded Craig Venter team. This is one contentious issue that CERN can probably try to tackle. It was at CERN that the World Wide Web was invented, and an early WWW was initially made available to the small community of high-energy physicists. It also played a central role in developing the Internet in Europe. Today, it has the CERN Easy Access IP through which it makes available some of its technologies “free of royalties,” provided they are developed to “benefit the economy and society.” The latest is its pioneering effort to make the entire field of high-energy physics open access through the Sponsoring Consortium for Open Access Publishing in Particle Physics (SCOAP3) initiative.