Italy at CERN. An Interview with Fabiola Gianotti – Part 2
After explaining the scientific and social role that CERN plays at an international level, Fabiola Gianotti, CERN Director-General, tells us about Italy’s contribution to this super laboratory, one of the most advanced and sophisticated research centres worldwide, and about the impact that research carried out at CERN has on everyday life.
A team of 17,000 scientists from more than 110 countries around the world work on CERN experiments today. Who makes up this ‘population’ and how many Italians work on the experiments?
The majority of the 17,000 scientists – physicists, engineers and technicians – who work on CERN experiments are young: the average age is 27 and about 40% of them are under 35. Also, the presence of women working at CERN is growing: the percentage is now 12% and, although it seems a small percentage, there has been a marked increase compared to 1995, when women made up only 4% of scientists at CERN. Italy boasts a strong presence at CERN and has the largest contingent of physicists working on experiments, more than 2,000 people. In addition, about 500 Italians work as employees of the laboratory.
Italy, therefore, plays a leading role in this major project.
The Italian contribution has been fundamental since the establishment of CERN and it is still today. CERN has had 4 Italian Directors General out of 17, and 3 of the 4 major LHC accelerator experiments are led by Italian scientists. Our schools and our universities are among the best in the world and still today I have the pleasure of meeting very well trained young Italian scientists, certainly among the most competent in our field.
Was it the same for you? How much did your studying in Italy contribute to your success?
A great deal. I think I had an excellent education from primary school to university and my excellent education has certainly helped my professional career. Working in close contact with scientists from around the world, then, has enriched my knowledge but my roots are firmly Italian. After all, this is the beauty of diversity: at CERN, people from all over the world work side by side and collaborate while keeping their own traditions, their own characteristics and the attachment to their home country.
And what is Europe’s and Italy’s financial contribution to the operation of CERN?
The European financial contribution to CERN amounts to around one billion Swiss francs per year, about the price of a cappuccino per year per European citizen. This budget is covered by the member states according to their net national income, so the country that contributes most to the operation of CERN is Germany, followed by the United Kingdom, France and Italy, which contributes 10.5% - 11% of the budget, around 120 million Swiss francs. However, part of this contribution returns to our country in the form of industrial contracts and added value for technological development. At the time of the LHC’s construction, for example, Italy had a return on its investment of 110%, and therefore it obtained industrial contracts worth 10% more than what it had invested. Today the return is between 25% and 40%. In 2016, for example, there was a return in industrial contracts of 45 million Swiss francs.
Much of the research done at CERN is incomprehensible to mere mortals. In addition to advancing human knowledge, what impact does it have on everyday life?
One of the most frequently asked questions is whether the Higgs boson will change our lives. My answer is: “It has, already!” To discover this particle, in fact, we had to develop advanced technologies in all fields, from cryogenics to electronics, up to the Big Data sector. Today everyone uses the World Wide Web, which was developed in our laboratories, but our innovations are also applied to the development of solar panels or to medicine. An important application made possible by our technologies is hadron therapy, which consists in ‘bombarding’ tumours with light ions – such as carbon ions – which only target tumour tissues while saving healthy tissue. In Europe today there are 14 facilities that use this technology and one of the pioneering centres is the National Centre of Oncological Hadron Therapy in Pavia, founded by Ugo Amaldi, which has treated more than 1,600 patients since 2010. At the moment we are trying to make these devices more compact and easier to use in hospitals. But this is just one example of how CERN technologies can have a direct impact on our lives…