Pakistan & CERN: Pakistan close to getting associate membership

An edited version of this article was first published in The Express Tribune on Oct 5, 2013.

Islamabad – Pakistan has moved one step closer to becoming a part of an elite science club.

The country has been approved by the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN), the world’s biggest particle physics laboratory, for consideration of CERN’s “associate member” status.

According to scientists at the National Centre for Physics (NCP) which has been collaborating with CERN since 2000, the CERN Council unanimously approved in principle Pakistan’s name for the process of achieving associate membership, at a meeting on September 17.

The final approval for associate membership is contingent upon the report of a CERN “fact-finding mission” which will visit Pakistan around February 2014, said Dr Hafeez Hoorani, a particle physicist who is the Director Research at NCP.

The Council’s approval marks the culmination of a process that was initiated by Pakistani scientists in 2008 and has witnessed scientific lobbying, political delays and even a diplomatic campaign by the Pakistani Foreign Office. It also signals the beginning of a process that could potentially lead to Pakistan’s associate membership by the end of 2014.

Located on the Franco-Swiss border near Geneva, Switzerland, CERN conducts some of the most complex scientific experiments of all-time in a bid to understand the structure of the universe. It is the birthplace of the World Wide Web and is home to the world’s largest particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC).

Pakistan is already contributing to CERN projects including designing detection technology and providing personnel support for the LHC’s maintenance. Associate membership could take the level of collaboration up a notch.

Hoorani, who also works as a Senior Physicist on the Compact Muon Solenoid detector project at CERN, said the membership would allow Pakistan to send more students to CERN for research.

“If we try to send students for research work at CERN now, we have to put up a request,” he said. “With the associate membership, we will get a student quota of say around 15 students so it will be our right and we won’t have to beg.”

The membership would also allow Pakistan to become a part of any CERN projects — a right the country could exercise based on its national interests. Pakistani industry would also be able to apply on a preferential basis for any tenders issued by CERN, NCP scientists said.

Back in June when talks of Pakistan’s associate membership became public, Pakistani physicist Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy had told The Express Tribune that Pakistan’s “modest” collaboration is more about equipment manufacture than physics.

“In no way does this (collaboration) mean that we are on par with China, India, the European countries or the United States,” Hoodbhoy had said, but he had appreciated that it would allow Pakistani students a window into the world of advanced scientific experiments.

The CERN Council consists of 20 member states — all European countries — which are represented by two members each, a scientist and a diplomat. According to NCP scientists, the diplomats were reluctant when Pakistan’s associate membership application came up this year.

They asked to consult their governments about the development. The Foreign Office of Pakistan sprang into action, Hoorani said, advising Pakistani ambassadors in the 20 European countries to make the case for Pakistan’s membership.

Meanwhile, around 30 Pakistani scientists working at CERN also engaged in lobbying within scientific circles.

The Council, which meets quarterly, could have given approval for the membership process in June. But the May 2013 general elections and consequent change of government meant new Federal Minister for Science and Technology Zahid Hamid had to re-confirm Pakistan’s commitment before the Council took up the application again.

CERN has three associate members at present: Serbia, Israel and Ukraine. Responding to a question, Hoorani said Pakistan has also beaten regional neighbour India to the membership process.

Now with the approval from the Council, a four-member CERN team led by Director for Research and Computing, Sergio Bertolluci, will visit Pakistan in 2014, he said.

It will try to determine the extent of Pakistan’s science education infrastructure, the government’s seriousness about investing in science and technology and the Pakistani industry’s capability to deliver on high-tech equipment manufacturing.

The report will be submitted to the Council early next year, Hoorani said.

“If the council thinks the report is positive, then the CERN management will have a go-ahead to talk with Pakistan regarding a formal legal agreement, which would also have to be ratified by the Pakistani parliament,” he said.

Pakistan will contribute around $1 million as a membership fee based on its Gross Domestic Product (GDP), for which the government has already agreed, according to NCP.

But is Pakistan ready to impress the fact-finding team?

“We are going to be upfront and truthful about what we are,” said Hoorani. “But we must not underestimate Pakistan. We don’t have a dearth of infrastructure and there are pockets in the country where great research and development work is being done.”

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