I have lost count of the number of times that I have heard the question, Why is CERN so well known, while EMBL, which also supports amazing science, is not?
I worked in the CERN communications team for seven years and I’ve now been at EMBL for close to two years, so I have some insights – if not answers – to share on this topic. I am sharing these now, just as we begin a process of drafting a communications strategy for EMBL with stakeholders across the organisation. I suspect that the development of EMBL’s communications strategy will prompt some people to ask themselves the question, Can EMBL be the next CERN?
What is CERN?
CERN is an infrastructure for physicists. It’s a chain of particle accelerators that has been built up over decades, and it has stuff around it to support researchers, such as computing infrastructure. CERN doesn’t conduct much research of its own, it instead hosts a lot of experiments which are generally collaborations made up by partner institutions working together. Some of these collaborations are huge – the ATLAS and CMS experiments both number several thousand people each and are comprised of institutes from all over the world. CERN is based on a single site on the outskirts of Geneva, and its accelerator chain extends underground across a large area beyond the site (if you fly in to Geneva airport you’ll be very close to the edge of the Large Hadron Collider, 100m below ground just to the west of the tarmac). Around 10,000 people work on the CERN site, only around 2,500 of which are CERN personnel. The rest are largely physicists, engineers and technicians from the collaborations.
CERN is home to the most powerful particle accelerator in the world, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). Half of the world’s particle physicists either work at CERN or rely on data that comes from CERN, and what the LHC does cannot be done anywhere else.
What is EMBL?
EMBL was modelled on CERN, which was seen as a success in bringing European scientists together to collaborate. There, however, the similarities end.
EMBL is distributed across six sites. It is relatively small, with around 1,600 staff. Unlike CERN, EMBL has its own researchers, who work in small, independent groups (a typical group might be 6-7 researchers). EMBL also trains scientists and runs all sorts of services for them, from beam line services for structural biology to informatics databases – this is very much core business.
Most of what EMBL does isn’t unique, and this comes from the nature of how the science is conducted: using quite modest infrastructures that are within reach of many research institutions or national scientific infrastructures (this is not true of CERN, which, arguably, no single nation could establish – you could also argue that EMBL-EBI, the site that operates extensive bimolecular databases, is edging in this direction).
The two organisations also operate in very different fields: there are tens of thousands of high-energy physicists working at a handful of infrastructures across the world; there are millions of life scientists working in myriad research centres, companies and organisations in sectors from healthcare to agriculture.
In summary: CERN and EMBL might both be intergovernmental research organisations supporting basic research, but they are really quite different from one another.
How did CERN become a household name?
CERN wasn’t always a household name. When I moved there in 2008, most people I spoke to hadn’t heard of it. I gave up saying the name, and switched instead to telling people that I was going to work at a physics lab in Geneva (that swiftly ended most questions). So how did CERN go from obscurity to being a byword for science? I think there are several reasons.
CERN does one thing, and it does it really well. It builds and runs infrastructures for high-energy physics experiments. That’s it. It has other missions, such as education, but these are side activities compared to the main show: the accelerator chain. Companies and organisations that do one thing well very often gain recognition.
CERN began to have a higher profile when a small subset of people began to get scared that it would end the world by creating a dangerous black hole. There were court cases, spoof videos of the world being consumed by a black hole and conspiracy theories.
This fear, and the misinformation that accompanied and fuelled it, came to a fever pitch when the LHC started up in September 2008. Would it function as expected? Would it create black holes? Would it be dangerous?
My boss, James Gillies, who was Head of Communications, was under an immense amount of pressure at this time. I’m sure that part of him wished that the attention would just go away – after all, CERN had quietly been doing its stuff very successfully for 50 years, thank you very much. To his credit, however, he embraced this newfound interest and used it as an opportunity to reach new audiences and inform them about particle physics. For instance, rather than reflexively deny that the LHC was dangerous, he tasked the Communications group with producing informative content on the science behind the conspiracy theories.
“The creation of a quantum black hole at the LHC would be very surprising, but very exciting indeed. It would allow physicists to learn about nature’s most elusive force – gravity.” (CERN – angelsanddemons.web.cern.ch)
He also invited the world’s media to come and watch the machine being started up for the first time. It was a like a rocket launch! We had over 100 million visitors to CERN’s websites that day.
This openness to scrutiny, and engagement with audiences who are fearful, took a lot of smarts and courage, and I think if you want a short answer to why CERN is now so well known, it’s people like James who had the courage to seize these opportunities.
Can EMBL be like CERN?
This is a tough question. I don’t think it should strive to be like CERN; as I’ve said, the two organisations are very different, and that is ok. EMBL is an amazing organisation and I’m proud to be part of it.
Just as CERN wasn’t well known not so very long ago, however, so too, might EMBL’s day come. The Strategy and Communications team is laying the ground work so that we can, collectively, seize our own opportunities to raise EMBL’s profile as and when they come.
I’ll close by asking a question in return: Is it important for EMBL to become a household name?