CERN Accelerating science

Interview with Jorgen D'Hondt

Jorgen D'Hondt (right) with François Englert (left), Nobel prize laureate for the prediction and detection of the Higgs boson. (Image: CERN)

Jorgen D'Hondt, Professor at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, is the Chairperson of the European Committee for Future Accelerators (ECFA). In this interview, we discuss with him about the European Strategy Update for Particle Physics, the recent ECFA meeting, and communication of accelerator science and technology.

Which are the key challenges lying ahead for ECFA and its role in the ongoing European Strategy Update in particle physics? 

The general role of ECFA in our community is to enhance the dialogue among all parties to prepare the particle physics community for the strongest future, such that we can optimally pursue our research aspirations. This dialogue can be on scientific as well as organizational aspects relevant to our field, because bringing together human and financial resources is challenging in a research field with a strong ambition.

In this context, the role of the European Strategy process is essential for our field and somewhat unique for science; offering an example perhaps for other disciplines. It is a truly bottom-up approach to define a coherent and shared vision on how we most optimally make progress towards an understanding of fundamental interactions.

Surely this is a challenge to be discussed in a global context and reaching out to adjacent fields of research like nuclear physics and astroparticle physics, as well as the recently enhanced field of gravitational waves. When the scientists themselves reach a consensus on their vision for the future, it will facilitate the policy makers and funding providers to create resource loaded funding programs to match our aspirations, and this must happen in a coherent fashion across nations.

Are there any differences in the process from the previous Strategy Update?

The core of the process remains very similar; a bottom-up approach in which every scientist is able to express her/his opinion and to participate in the open debate.

The Open Symposium organized at Granada in May 2019 will offer a venue for this scientific debate among scientists. Provided with this information, the European Strategy Group (ESG) will continue the dialogue towards a draft update of the European Strategy for Particle Physics to be presented to the CERN Council for approval by May 2020.

What has changed in the environment compared to the past European Strategy Update.

Although as discussed the process did not change, we are indeed in a different research environment. The previous update in 2013 came after a milestone discovery of a new and yet unique particle, the Higgs boson, basically crowning the Standard Model of particle physics. We know however that there must be new physics phenomena out there for us to discover and understand. The current Strategy update seems to proceed with a different type of discovery in mind, namely the fact that our most simple models for new physics seem to be excluded by running experiments.

The fact that the landscape for new physics might be much wider and complicated than we initially hoped for is a recent discovery and defines a different environment for the upcoming European Strategy discussions.

ECFA takes this into account and one way in which we try to assist future decisions is by setting dedicated working groups. For example, we recently agreed to establish a new working group revolving around the potential to explore the Higgs sector with future colliders, and especially to verify the complementarity between these colliders. This working group will assist the strategy process and inform the community towards the discussions on the European Strategy.

In the recent ECFA meeting at CERN, the results of a survey on recognition of individuals were presented. Which are the key messages that came out?

The future of particle physics research depends strongly and mostly on the researchers involved and their talents to innovate technology and physics. It is very important to understand if our field provides the most optimal conditions to attract these talents and to foster them.

One should note that a similar survey on the topic of authorship on collaboration wide publications was conducted about 10 years ago by ICFA, and now 10 years in the research program of the LHC experiments, we thought that it is time to verify where we are.

The survey has shown that the community appreciates innovation driven researchers as well as the technical work (hardware and software) that is required for our experiments. I personally welcome very much these observations, but at the same time I tend to observe in the data from the survey the tension between recognition for the collaborative efforts and the individual efforts. Because setting up adequate procedures to accommodate both is certainly not exact science, the opinions are sometimes very diverse on how to archive this balance between the collective and the individual but I am proud that ECFA contributes to this discussion.

Surely these discussions and debates are not the end of a process. These merely inform the community about the challenges we face. ECFA will verify if it could invite collaborations to join a working group to further the discussions, and to match the observations in the survey with best practices and to learn from each other, across collaborations. I believe that is ECFA’s role to foster the research environment and therefore to facilitate these discussions by bringing together all parties.

From your experience – including both your academic work and the various managerial roles that you had - why is it important to talk about accelerators today? What should inform our effort to communicate accelerator science and technology?

For scientists, especially those with research aspirations in high-energy physics, it should be obvious why we should continuously learn about new accelerator technologies and therefore future collider options. We simply do not have sufficient resources to build all the accelerators and colliders we would like to. At the high-energy frontier there are only a handful of options and thus we have to map thoroughly the full landscape of the physics potential with each option.

The results we achieve today with the LHC experiments are far beyond what we initially thought would have been possible. This is possible due to the long timescales of our experiments of course, but mainly because of the enormous amount of innovative and paradigm shifting research done by the community. We need to be smart enough to predict the impact of bold innovation in particle physics for the next decades, not only for the accelerator technology but as well for the ingenuity in data analysis and theoretical modeling. The better we map the full landscape that is realistically reachable with each of the future collider options, the better the community can make choices and reach a consensus on how to move forward.

For the majority of the society the high-tech technology deployed in industry remains invisible. People understand typically what enters in their immediate environment, your kitchen, your car, your family, etc. The real science and technology to build microwave ovens, or to obtain healthy food, or self-driving cars, or the technology lying behind the medical healthcare of your loved ones, is known to only a handful of people. Therefore, researchers have a major responsibility to create awareness of the impact of their science and technology in society.

The exponential growth of the number of accelerators in industry is a clear example, with an enormous market value. With accelerators we can in principle make the invisible more visible, and adapt microstructures of materials. The analysis and modification of biological and chemical materials, and the medical diagnostics of the inside of our bodies are few examples. Less than 1% of the accelerators worldwide are used for truly fundamental research, yet its them that push the frontier of the accelerator technology for the other 99%!


Group photo from the Plenary ECFA meeting that was held from 19 to 20 July 2018 at ALBA (Spain)


I would like to ask you also about ECFA's collaboration with similar bodies in other parts of the world in light also of the upcoming strategy update.

Let me start with Europe where ECFA represents the particle physics community,  NuPECC stands for the nuclear physics community and ApPEC for the astroparticle physics community. There are obvious synergies between the scientific, technological and organizational challenges and opportunities of these three communities. Therefore we are increasingly strengthening the crosstalk between these communities. This vision was also shared in the previous update of the European Strategy for Particle Physics and in my view is important to go forward.

On a global scale, we have ICFA that embraces members from all continents and fosters exactly the intercontinental dialogue for particle physics. The CERN’s DG, the DESY’s research director and the ECFA chair currently represent Europe in several meetings that we try to have per year.  These active contacts are essential for our research field because we reached with the LHC a truly global enterprise, and surely all aspirations for major future colliders will have to embrace this global and international profile.

In your view which are the main challenges lying ahead in designing future accelerators? What the communities working in the design of future machines should take into account? 

There are challenges on diverse fronts. There are the well-known technological challenges to reach higher collision energies and higher luminosities in a cost-efficient manner. To reach our research objectives in fundamental physics our community needs to push the frontier of technology so much that we should not forget to bring the industry along in this endeavor. We should always have an adequate number of strong companies that can work with us and are able to deliver technology for our accelerators and experiments on an industrial scale.

There is a challenge to foster and sustain this crosstalk between science and industry, which will as well strengthen our opportunities towards societal impact. This connection is typically established at the level of the captains of science and the captains of industry, but should also infiltrate in the minds of the early career researchers and even of students at universities. The mindset to bring our innovations in research to the society and the market is to be enhanced, and more platforms are to be created to stimulate and facilitate, for both the very early career researcher and the established one. This will be beneficial for the society but as well for the individual researcher, certainly in the context of career opportunities by facilitating the potential transition to non-academic jobs.

On the aspect of resources we reached with the LHC a situation where we need to combine the human and financial resources from around the world in order to achieve our research ambitions. This will also be the case for any major future collider. We are however in a good situation because additional and economically strong countries have enhanced their aspirations in particle physics and even seek leadership on the international scene.

You have also been the first chairman of the foundation of Belgium Young Academy and I am wondering which were the lessons from this role? How well the field of particle physics is doing in attracting young talents?

Indeed I was the first chair of the Young Academy in Belgium, and therefore helped to bring together typically younger and very talented professors across disciplines and universities. For most, if not for all, this was an eye opener.

To take the time to learn about other disciplines was an enriching experience. Not only to learn about their research outcomes, but mostly about who they are, what drives them, what are their challenges to excel in their profession. All this leads to a more profound appreciation for each other’s research. Where we have identified synergies in our challenges and frustrations, we opened the debate towards potential solutions. And surely we did not hesitate to communicate them to policy makers in Belgium.

As I am getting older, now I am not part of the Young Academy any more, and it was a pleasure for me that the Belgian King joined the ceremony to wave us out. This is somewhat a demonstration that if you bring together the most excellent talents with the right mindset, the cocktail is a prelude for a successful future. Likewise for our particle physics community, our main challenge is to keep attracting the best talents and to provide them with sufficient guidance yet freedom to seek their ambitions, and to recognize them when they succeed.

Daniela Antonio (CERN)
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Behind the scenes at the Big Science Business Forum (BSBF): New procurement practices can support large research organisations

Anders Unnervik addressing the audience at BSBF in February 2018 (Image: Rikke Kolding for BSBF2018)

The first edition of the Big Science Business Forum (BSBF) was organised from the 26th to 28th of February in Copenhagen. Anders Unnervik, Head of the Procurement and Industrial Services Group at CERN, is a member of the International Organising Committee of the BSBF. We interviewed him about the event and how it will influence the sourcing strategy of large research organisations in Europe.

Anders obtained an MSc in Industrial and Management Engineering in Linköping (Sweden), before joining CERN in 1988, as a member of the Procurement Service Group. After heading several procurement projects, he became Head of the Procurement and Industrial Services Group in 2008. For Anders, procurement is very rewarding, as it gives the opportunity to explore many different technical fields: “I was lucky to be involved, from the very beginning, in the LHC procurement process and to work on all the big contracts. Each of the technical specialities you get involved while procuring products or services is truly fascinating”.

The BSBF2018 vision was to provide an important stepping-stone towards establishing a stronger, more transparent, and efficient Big Science market in Europe. Which were the results? This is what we discussed with Anders.

Why was the BSBF2018 organised?

In EIROforum, there is a Working Group for Procurement in which we discuss problems that each organisation faces with suppliers. There are two tendencies. On one side, in research organisations, the projects face increasingly longer development periods, whilst companies on the other side look more and more at short-term issues. In most cases, we need to engage the industry at the development stage and some companies need to work for years before they deliver large orders. Most, if not all, of the EIROforum organisations, as well as other big research facilities, like the European Spallation Source (ESS) or Fusion for Energy (F4E), face the same dilemma of being able to attract suppliers over long development cycles. For certain equipment, such as superconducting cables, we may need a big volume for a couple of years, followed by several years with no demand. At the same time, other research facilities may need large volumes with a time-shift compared to CERN.

The idea was to establish a Big Science business model, in which all the research organisations could show to the industry their collective needs for the next 4-5 years, thereby raising the interest of a larger pool of companies, compared to what each research organisation could achieve individually. We also aimed to show to the companies that the Big Science market is bigger than what they thought. This is linked to the so-called planning angle, since companies can have a mid-term view on the requirements from the research organisations.

This idea was also discussed among some of the Industrial Liaison Officers and, as a result, in October 2016, the Danish Agency for Science, Technology and Innovation at the Ministry of Higher Education and Science in Denmark, submitted a proposal to host the first Big Science Business Forum (BSBF2018) in Copenhagen.

As the interest to organise such event grew, seven organisations from EIROforum were joined by ESS and F4E and, as affiliated partners, nine other big science organisations. I was appointed, from day one, as contact person for CERN in the International Organising Committee that supervised the design and delivery of the Big Science Business Forum.

Can you give us an example on why it is important to establish a stronger, more transparent, and efficient Big Science market in Europe?

The big science market will require more and more frontline technical developments and there are less and less companies working on such long-term development. To give you an example, for the High Luminosity LHC (HL-LHC) project and for the Future Circular Collider (FCC) study, we worked with two companies to develop high-performance niobium-tin cables that could reach the required parameters for the high-field magnets, one with production in the US and one in Germany. We have been working for years with them to push for developments that to ensure the cables will meet our requirements, first for HL-LHC and even more performant cables for FCC. We were satisfied working with two companies, each using a different technology, to reduce the risk of being dependent on one supplier and to ensure some competition. And what happened? One of the firms acquired the other.

In order to avoid similar situations and to increase the number of potential suppliers in areas related to cutting edge technologies, it is important to show to the companies that this market  is larger than what they may initially think and therefore worthy of their R&D investment. This also requires that companies get a view on what the research organisations will require in the future, so that they get the complete picture. 

Did you have a particular role in the organization of BSBF18?

My role was to liaise between CERN and the local organisers of the BSBF. We aimed for a programme that would represent each organisations’ needs in a range of technical fields: superconducting magnets, radiofrequency, high vacuum, control systems, etc. Furthermore, we identified speakers that could best represent the various institutions involved and who had a deep knowledge of the technological challenges. From CERN, 24 people participated in the Forum, three from procurement and 21 from the technical fields. My role was to make sure that all the work was coordinated smoothly amongst ourselves. Frédérick Bordry came as well, on behalf of Fabiola Gianotti, to give a general presentation of CERN and its requirements in the years to come.

Who else from the accelerators’ community was there?

In addition to CERN, ESRF, XFEL, ESS, DESY, ALBA, MAXIV, PSI and FAIR all participated. It should be noted that half of the organisations behind BSBF2018 came from the accelerators’ community.

How was BSBF2018 organised?

Firstly, each big science organisation presented itself at the Directorate level in the Plenary Session and, from there on, there were many parallel sessions organised. This format helped to maximise the interactions amongst the numerous different technical domains. There were also B2B and B2C meetings. Finally, CERN, like the other research organizations that participated in BSBF2018 and a number of companies, had a big stand presenting the ongoing and future procurement opportunities and giving the opportunity for industrial representatives to find out more.

Was there any plan of actions for the event itself?

The expectation for CERN, as well as for other research organisations, was to meet with new potential suppliers that might have worked with other organisations, but not with us. Our objective was to make them interested in CERN’s activities. That was the key challenge. In addition, technical colleagues from CERN met their counterparts in other research organisations and realised that they were addressing the same problems through these discussions. This generated intense exchanges and can be seen as a by-product of the Forum as it happened outside the sessions.

Were you surprised to see 1000+ participants?

As the BSBF International Organising Committee (IOC), we set a number of targets to reach, even though it was difficult to estimate, since it was the first time that something similar was organized. However we exceeded all of them. We had more than 1000 participants, amongst which 700 were external participants. 62 exhibitors, 500 business and organisations were represented from 29 countries. I think it was a big success with more than 95.2% of the participants reporting being satisfied or very satisfied with the event.

What were the two highlights for you at BSBF2018?

First of all, the organisation was excellent and everything went very smoothly. This was the feedback we received from all the participants, including the accelerators’ community. There was a big interest from industry and I understand that, because it is much better for them to have the chance to meet all the stakeholders in one place, rather than touring Europe. This is the reason why so many industry representatives came. For them, it was an excellent opportunity to meet all European big science organisations. To me, the big advantage is that we created a critical mass and, for this reason, it is worth doing it again.

What are the next steps?

The feedback was so positive that the stakeholders are fully in favour of continuing. The IOC met in June and unanimously decided to plan a new BSBF event in two years’ time. This will leave enough time for developments without generating a disconnect between the two editions. The idea was to rotate the location of the event and thus we invited expressions of interest from countries. The BSBF2020 venue will be selected later this year.

How would you qualify, in three words, the CERN supplier base?

In many aspects, it is very diverse. In size, it ranges from very small to very big companies, it is geographically distributed and capable of supplying a very large range of equipment and services. In general, we have very competent suppliers. Let us not forget that the LHC is the most complex machine ever built and we built it with the help of our suppliers.

We like to see suppliers as partners, because, for some of them, we have to work over long periods of time. These are more like partnerships, even if the collaboration is based on commercial contracts. So we are working with diverse competent partners and the challenge is always to find new potential suppliers that we did not know before.

What is an interesting fact about the CERN supplier base?

SMEs are often more successful as suppliers than the very big ones. CERN often comes with very specific requirements and that is where small companies, which are often more flexible compared to larger companies, will be more willing to modify or tailor their products in order to meet the specific requirements.

An example, the most successful suppliers for our servers in our computer centres are companies that you probably never heard of, because they are relatively small companies, but they are building the servers exactly as we want them and in a matching price range. We have very few of the big names’ servers because it is seldom that they are exactly matching our requirements and often they are not interested in customizing them only for CERN. However when they happen to have a system meeting exactly our requirements, prices are competitive because they are produced in large volumes.

From your 30-year experience, what is always changing in procurement and what never changes?

What gradually changes is the process and the way we do procurement. We regularly benchmark ourselves and we always try to improve how we deal with all procurement and contracting activities. We put a lot of documentation online, we provide transparency and we have implemented automated processes. These are constant modifications, not necessarily big, but constant as part of our effort to improve, adopting the best practices in procurement, and satisfying the challenges of the ongoing projects of our laboratory. What never changes is the ultimate goal. We will always want to buy products or services that meet or exceed our requirements at the lowest overall costs. You want to get sufficiently good quality when you need it and pay as little as possible. That will never change. However, the way to achieve that is something that continuously improves, always step by step.

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