Why is the UK involved with CERN?

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) was created to allow us to test theories and ideas about how the Universe works, its origins and evolution. The questions asked, and answers found, are so fundamental that the information from LHC experiments may only be applied many years in the future, if at all. However, this is an experiment and one of the surprises from the experiment may be new science that can be applied almost immediately.

There are many benefits to being involved in a world-leading facility of research such as CERN. Some benefits are much more apparent than others depending where you are looking; some of the less appreciated benefits are:

  • a deeper understanding of the physical world
  • training generations of world class scientists and engineers
  • the ability to maintain a vibrant world class UK research base
  • to have leading roles in a major international projects
  • inspiring and motivating a younger generation.

More tangible benefits are the knowledge, expertise and technology that are spun off from the LHC that can be directly applied to development of new medical, industrial and consumer technologies. Though the science of the LHC is far removed from everyday life, the fact that the science is so extreme constantly pushes the boundaries of existing technical and engineering solutions. Therefore, the act of simply building the LHC has generated vast amounts of new technologies.

Apart from fulfilling a quest for knowledge, studying particle physics provides wider benefits to society. Listing a few of the major outcomes:

  • touch-screen technologies
  • cancer therapy
  • medical and industrial imaging
  • radiation protection and processing
  • electronic components
  • leading software development
  • data handling and storage
  • measuring instruments
  • new manufacturing processes and materials
  • information technology, including the internet.

These benefits span over a large variety of areas but it can be particularly appreciated in medicine. For example, about 20 million people each year undergo diagnosis using radio-pharmaceuticals. A well-known form of this is the Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scan, whose development owes much to CERN and the Geneva Cantonal Hospital as the forerunners of the detectors used in these scanners were developed initially as particle detectors for experiments at CERN. This is continuing as new medical breakthroughs are made like retinal implants, which can trace their origins back to sensitive detectors found in the ATLAS detector.

In the most recent development, proton accelerators are now being adopted for hadron therapy. The advantage of protons is that they deposit all their energy in the same place, making them ideal for treating tumours near to delicate organs. CERN is now contributing to research that uses carbon ions instead of protons, which can be managed as precisely but can have higher energies.

Outside of medicine CERN has facilitated development of many devices that are now used every day. This includes developing the first capacitive touch screens providing accurate measurements to calibrate the first global positioning system (GPS), through to the more recent application of vacuum technology to solar panels.

How has the UK benefited from CERN?

  • industry has gained more than £27 million worth of contracts from CERN during the construction of the LHC
  • industry continues to get, on average, around £15 million every year in contracts from CERN. These cover a huge range of activities, from computing, electronics and vacuum technology to cleaning and civil engineering projects
  • in 2009 the UK IT company Viglen won a £1.8 million contract to provide part of the required processing power needed to analyse data from the LHC
  • more than 20 research groups across the UK helped prepare for the LHC. A number of spin-off technologies have come from scientists’ work in preparing for the LHC and many new applications are anticipated – hardly surprising since the last major experiment at CERN resulted in the creation of the World Wide Web
  • during construction of the LHC, CERN spent around £3.4 billion (approximately 40% of its budget) on industrial contracts, mainly within the 20 member states.

Last updated: 31 March 2022

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