CERN Accelerating science

Interview with Prof. John Womersley, Director of ESS
by Panos Charitos (CERN)

Professor John Womersley (Image: ESS)

Accelerating News Editor in Chief, Panos Charitos, sat down with Director General of the European Spallation Source (ESS) Professor John Womersley to discuss his experience at ESS and the future of European infrastructures and projects. 

PC: Which are the main challenges in your new mandate as Director General of ESS?

JW: The European Spallation Source (ESS) is one of the world’s largest scientific facilities and as such presents many interesting challenges. Scientists, staff, partner institutions and countries across Europe have come together to build what will be the world's leading neutron source for research on materials and life sciences. ESS will provide up to 100 times brighter neutron beams than existing facilities today and this calls for the development of state-of-the-art technologies.

The limitations of reactor technology have long been known and there is a consensus that accelerator driven spallation sources are the next step forward. With an improved source there is also the need for ESS to develop increasingly sophisticated instruments and detectors.

All these developments are taking place in a green-field site in Lund, Sweden and everything has to be built from scratch. ESS is not part of an existing laboratory so we now have to develop the infrastructures and also recruit the staff that will operate the neutron source once it is running.

 Visualisation of the European Spallation Source (ESS) in Lund (Image: ESS)

ESS is receiving in-kind contributions from almost 100 different partner institutes and suppliers from around Europe. The large amount of in-kind contributions also poses a significant integration challenge that adds to the complexity of the project. Over the past year, instrument design has advanced rapidly, with scope-setting, engineering, and the establishment of each instrument’s budget and schedule.

One way to think of the challenge is that it is like putting the ATLAS or CMS detectors together and integrating the different subdetectors that are designed and build by different international teams of physicists. This also presents us with a great opportunity to build a truly international laboratory on a site that is very hospitable and very welcoming to researchers and partners from all over the world.

PC: What are the main advantages of ESS that attract new members?

JW: There are important material science communities in many countries across Europe. Let me note that material science is important as it addresses many of the big challenges that lie ahead in the 21st century, including energy sustainability, health-care, and climate challenge.  Further developments require new materials with unique properties and neutron scattering is an excellent way to explore and monitor the properties of these materials at molecular and atomic level, thus allowing for the development of new materials.

(Credit: ESS)

ESS will go way beyond what is currently available in terms of the neutron flux and instrumentation capability. ESS builds on an existing vision in Europe that dates at least 50 years but is a facility that offers vastly expanding capabilities.

PC: What do you bring from your previous experience as CEO of STFC in this challenging role?

JW. I think that my background in particle physics gave me an invaluable experience in building large-scale projects and managing them in a collaborative way; lot of different laboratories coordinate to build different pieces of instrumentation and integrate them in a single project. In my view, the particle physics community has an excellent track record of delivering collaborative projects on time and on budget.

Moreover, from my role in STFC comes an appreciation of the multi and inter-disciplinary aspects that are common in ESS. One could think ESS as applying cutting-edge accelerator technologies (using superconducting RF cavities conceived for future particle physics accelerators) but using them to address challenges in engineering and biophysics and healthcare. Under my leadership, STFC has developed a very good track record for making the case for Big Science to all the involved stakeholder groups.

Last but not least, through the years I always kept an eye on science communication and advocacy which is very important for ESS but also for other laboratories around the world. Stakeholders in large-scale scientific projects need to be continually reminded of their value and importance.

PC: Why do you think is important to continue investing in large-scale research infrastructures?

JW. I think there are many reasons. First of all the open questions in science, whether it is fundamental physics, astronomy or engineering, require that we develop new instruments and push further back existing technologies.

If we want to progress in science we need scientific infrastructures that offer new capabilities beyond our present horizon. This means investing resources in new and large-scale research facilities. It takes a lot of time to design and build them while they require both human and financial resources which is why we need to build big collaborations to achieve in these efforts.

Particle physics has been working this way for many decades while other fields like biomedical research are now starting to form large collaborative activities and becoming accustomed to this new way of doing fundamental research.

To make these large-scale research infrastructures sustainable I think it is important to recognize some of the risks and challenges linked to the size of these big projects. First of all, there is typically a long time from concept to realization and thus we should ensure that students and post-doctoral researchers have plenty of working opportunities during the different stages of a project. Secondly, it is crucial to ensure that scientists develop news skills and learn to work in large collaborative schemes. Especially younger scientists who can easily feel lost in a big collaboration. It is important to keep all the collaborators motivated about a project and also give them space to develop new skills that may help them in their career paths.

Another important point about large-scale research infrastructures is that they offer a physical space to meet and interact with your colleagues. Though we leave in an internet-connected world with many opportunities for instantaneous communication, it is much more fruitful if you can share solutions in a collaborative way that included both physical meeting and digital communication.

All in all, it is important to continue investing in large-scale research infrastructures since they are clusters of innovation, incubators of collaboration and the way to make progress towards tackling the biggest scientific challenges.

PC: How important is to identify the stakeholders in large-scale projects from an early stage and what’s the role of ESFRI?

JW: It is absolutely critical to understand the stakeholder environment, since these big scientific projects require investments beyond what a single funding agency or research laboratory can do.

Typically they require some form of national decision making either at a level of a funding agency or some form of governmental agency. In that sense, scientists need to be connected with the decision makers who have been entrusted with those high level of budget. Decision makers are often not scientists or they can come from a different discipline making it harder to communicate your scientific case. On top of that they always need to compare different research priorities before allocating the available budget. This is why is important to be very strong in communicating not only the hard scientific case but also the benefits that stem from fundamental research.

This has been one of the main challenges for ESFRI. We tried to bring together representatives of governments around the table and set a roadmap process to identify the main research challenges in different research areas. The goal was to commonly set priorities for the European research area and progress them more efficiently.

In ESFRI, we have tried to address not just the scientific relevance of a given project but also its readiness meaning the project maturity. Our aim was twofold: to educate governments and funding agencies about the scientific priorities but also educate scientists about what funding agencies would like to see; in particular the need to have a very clear project plan. Scientists should identify sources of funding, but also evaluate the impact that research has in their own field along with its interdisciplinary impact and the socio-economic benefits that stem from fundamental research.

ESFRI is not a funding agency with its own budget but offers a certain level of advocacy presenting to governments the future scientific opportunities and investments. At the same time we provided feedback to the scientific community (especially in cases where we thought that a project is not mature enough).  I hope that our work contributed to make ESFRI a rigorous body from which both the scientific community and also funding agencies could benefit.

PC: Do you think that more and more scientists have to prove the practical application of their research?

JW: This is a discussion that has gone on for many years and I remember that even when I studied physics as an undergraduate there was much debate about applied versus pure research. Today I think that this discussion has moved on in a positive direction. In my view there is no strict distinction between research carried out to answer fundamental questions and research carried out to answer some practical and perhaps pressing problems. These are different aspects of research that reflect different timescales.

Scientists should make a constant effort to communicate the basic questions of their research. It is unreasonable to expect decision makers and the public to provide funding without discussing your research and the possible outputs. From my experience, the public and the politicians are willing to understand the value of research including the training opportunities for young people.

All of these broader aspects need to be included. Let me add that scientists working in "purer" research shouldn’t be worried because of a difficulty to discuss very abstract or very technical issues. On the contrary, it should be seen as a big opportunity for some of the ongoing exciting research projects to talk about the impact that their results have had including their socio-economic benefits. We have a wide range of impact and stories of applications coming from HEP. Applications to aerospace technology – one can easily comprehend its financial benefits - to research of understanding fundamental mechanisms of biology and all the way up to gravitational waves that may never be applied but the technology developed and the interested in science that was created have high value.

The discovery of the Higgs boson has made thousands of newspaper stories and generated a high level of interest about science, inspiring possibly millions of people around the world to visit a science museum or watch a documentary. That's a major socioeconomic impact.

All in all, it is important to be enthusiastic about communicating our research to different stakeholders including the public, fellow scientists and journalists. This broader engagement of stakeholders is the way to think instead of trapping ourselves in the false choice between basic and applied research. In times of economic difficulty we need to invest more in education, training and innovation because this is how our economy can improve and lead to a brighter future.

PC: How do you see the transformation of the European research area?

JW: ESS offers a European scale solution to a problem pointed out by hundreds of scientists in national research communities. Many countries are decommissioning research reactors that supported research with neutron beams and so by pulling resources into a single new project the scale and capabilities of this project can be much larger. However each of these countries need to learn and adopt new ways of working based on international collaboration. If you like it is a shift from quantity to quality, a shift from having many competing research centres to invest in building a research centre that is better and diverse in nature. We need to learn to share resources and collaborate more. This is happening nowadays across Europe and is a major shift common across many research areas.

The main challenge in delivering this change is that it happens without a European budget for research infrastructures. H2020 has a significant budget overall, but only a small fraction of it goes to research infrastructures. Regarding ESS, about 1% has come from the EU budget - the rest comes from member states. So we need to create these collaborative projects by bringing together national funding. This is part of the way ERA is structured and is also a strength. It means that governments make a strong decision to be part of these projects and they don’t feel that their funding will be lost or that they have lost oversight of how it is used.

Presently, there are big questions as the 9th framework programme is designed, whether research infrastructures will take a bigger role.  I hope they do as they are major investments. I do welcome the funding within H2020 for activities like design studies for future research infrastructure but more is needed in my opinion.

PC: What do you think about the present landscape and the future of high-energy physics?

JW: I think there are three very attractive features of today's landscape that we need to remember and communicate. We just discovered the Higgs particle and we need to study it in detail and further understand it. We have a machine in the LHC that can be upgraded substantially and will give us the tool needed to study the Higgs boson with better statistics and higher precision.

Moreover, astroparticle searches for dark matter  will be complemented by collider searches. We are more and more convinced about the existence of dark matter as we accumulate more cosmological and astrophysical results, but we still have no idea what it actually is.

Finally, neutrino oscillations are a constant and very tangible reminder that there is physics beyond the standard model. Nature has been kind enough to give us three flavours of them with large mixing angles so the next generation of long baseline experiments will be able to further explore the nature of neutrinos, their mass hierarchy and probe CP violation.

The one thing which is missing is a credible plan for a new collider. So it is appropriate to explore future opportunities like a Future Circular Collider at CERN. Going sufficiently beyond the current energy scales opens great opportunities for the field. That’s how particle physics worked for many decades. In the past it has been the case with many large exploratory projects in other areas which similarly didn’t have a guarantee of new discoveries but offered deeper insights to scientific theories and opened new prospects. We need to communicate clearly the opportunities presented by a large-scale research infrastructure while also explaining that part of any technological R&D is to ensure the affordable construction and sustainable operation of such an infrastructure.