Communication and engagement practices at CERN

Jamie Dorey

The Open university



The production and sharing of knowledge and information between interested parties is fundamental to successful scholarship, be they other scientists, media professionals, stakeholders, or members of the public. Like many other big science projects, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN requires major international collaboration, significant public funding and assistance from a multitude of outside organisations. These factors create an extra imperative for openness and transparency when it comes to disseminating its work. The operations of the CERN press office play a crucial role in promoting the work carried out at the LHC and in developing opportunities for public engagement with high-energy physics. This work is complemented by the independent activities of CERN scientists who engage with the broader scientific community and with members of the general public. Analyses of CERN documentation regarding public engagement policy and interviews with CERN engagement professionals and researchers have been carried out with the aim of identifying the values that underpin CERN outreach and engagement policies and the motivations of individual scientists.



The operations of the CERN press office play a crucial role in promoting the work carried out at the LHC and in developing opportunities for public engagement with high-energy physics. This work is complemented by the independent activities of CERN scientists who engage with the broader scientific community and with members of the general public.


My Current study aims to explore how CERN research becomes public in an era of digital scholarship and what implication digital technologies have on academics and media professionals. The focus will be on how CERN researchers and professionals use digital technologies to communicate their research and engage with audiences.


This paper will outline some of the work done to date. It will discuss some examples of the values and attitudes that underpin public engagement at CERN that have emerged from a number of interviews carried out with CERN researchers and those involved with public engagement.



CERN was established in 1954 (CERN, 2013a) and is made up of distinctly separate users spread out across many countries. Over 10,000 scientists from over 600 universities carry out their research at CERN (CERN, 2013b).


The organisation of CERN is nicely in line with what Mintzberg (1985, p.160) would describe as an ‘Adhocracy’, that is an organisation that works in a complex and dynamic environment, with unique and complicated outputs. These outputs require experts from many different fields to form multidisciplinary teams. Coordination of such organisations is 'semi informal' with little direct supervision and standardisation. No single person is able to dictate, with decision making distributed among managers and nonmanagers. Such an organisation survives only if the members share the same values as to the role of the organisation. This can be difficult with such a wide variety of cultures in numerous institutions that are all so geographically dispersed. The Large Hadron Collider is the jewel CERN's experimental programme, but is nevertheless just one component of a very varied research infrastructure. It’s 4 main detectors ALICE, ATLAS, CM8 and LHCb[1] all have their own strategies for communication and engagement, furthering CERNs complexity.


Before its shutdown earlier this year, the LHC was producing around 15 petabytes (15 million gigabytes) of raw data each year[2], all of which needs to be stored, organised and analysed. For this the appropriate information technologies need to be in place to allow the most efficient handling, sharing and networking of data, while appropriate communication technologies need to be in place to allow effective communication, collaboration and engagement. And it has been the development and implementation of digital technologies into research and academia that has brought forward this new form of scholarship, 'digital scholarship'



The work of Boyer (1990, p.12) and his defining of ‘scholarship’ provided much of the groundwork for the conceptualisation of digital scholarship. Boyers concept of scholarship focused around four main elements that are all connected and interact with each other to various extents. The four elements are:

1. Discovery: The production of knowledge

2. Integration: Linking specific discoveries to a wider context

3. Application: Engaging with those outside of the original context

4. Teaching: Extending knowledge


A simple way to think of digital scholarship then is that it is concerned with technologies that support all scholarly practices, including discovering, analysing, publishing, and sharing research information.


Digital technologies therefore provide opportunities to extend research and teaching practices through formal and informal publications Scanlon (2013), while new forms of open access and open peer review have implications for openness and transparency within academia. There is also potential for digital scholarship to not only have direct benefits on academia, but to also impact on society through this increase in openness and dialogue through such things as citizen science initiatives (Pearce 2011, p2) (Weller 2011, p.50).


We have also seen in the debates surrounding climate change how digital technologies can allow the public and interested groups to evaluate research first hand and help shape the nature of public debate (Holliman 2011, p2). Yet, despite numerous acknowledgements of the potential benefits that digital technologies could bring as a scholarly tool, there is limited empirical evidence as to the impact technology has actually had on scholarship. This is where my study fits in. From studying strategic documentation produced at CERN, I identified three broad themes through which ‘Digital Scholarly Practices’ could be explored. These are Communication, information and engagement. For the benefit of this paper, I will talk a bit about the engagement strand of my research.



CERN has a long standing history on the openness of their research. Their original commitment to form collaborations and allow openness comes from their 1954 Convention (Amaldi, 1955), where in Article II.1, it states:

'The Organization shall provide for collaboration among European States in nuclear research of a pure scientific and fundamental character, and in research essentially related thereto. The Organization shall have no concern with work for military requirements and the results of its experimental and theoretical work shall be published or otherwise made generally available.' (Amaldi, 1955, p.4)


This statement is clearly quite broad and could have been interpreted in different ways. There is no indication as to what 'made generally available' would mean in practice, How this policy of openness would be enacted? The other key part of the statement is the word ‘results’. In general physics research only gets made available in its final, peer reviewed form. How then have digital technologies, which offer the possibility to make all stages research open, impacted on this general practice? There is also limited reference within the convention as to who results should be made available to. Within CERNs convention, there are only 2 groups specifically mandated for. These are the high energy physics community and CERN member states.


Despite this, CERN also has a number of broader non-mandated audiences they attempt to engage with through various means. From my interviews, I was able to group these into 4 general categories, but there is some variation between experiments as to who they targeted. This is summarised in four categories:


1) General public. (Group visits, Social media)                                 

Comments - Highly valued group. Broadly defined as adults who are not scientists but have some kind of interest in science. When it comes to the use of social media, twitter and Google hangouts are the preferred choice of individual scientist.


2) High school students (Visits, Special events - researchers nights etc., Video links)         

Comments - The majority of engagement targeting students involves them going behind the scenes to see scientists in action. This seems to be an attempt to dispel some of the myths and prejudices of what a scientist is and does.


3) Media (Tailored visits, Interviews with spokespersons and senior members.)

Comments - Identified as the most significant group by CERN’s communication team, although less valued by individual scientists.


4) VIPS (Tailored visits)                                                        

Comments - Again another highly valued group amongst senior scientists as they can influence funding



From the interviews I also established a number of reasons why scientists choose to engage with the public and the value they place on such interactions.


The reason people first take part in such activities is simply because of personal enjoyment. As public engagement is not required by CERN, such activities are left to those who have an interest in public engagement and enjoy doing such work. It was felt that scientists at CERN have begun to come round to the need to communicate to the outside world, and there is added excitement about what is being done at CERN.


One thing that came up in almost every interview was an awareness that as a publicly funded organisation, the public deserved to know what was being done with their money. This also would help also increase support for the work and help maintain funding. The public were seen as important by many as they were the ones who could influence political decisions regarding the value of such research.


Something that raised its head a few times was the feeling that the public understanding of science is to low, and the LHC gives scientists an opportunity to improve this. Although not a widely held opinion, it was thought the visit service lacked any real science content which made it ideal for the public as they wouldn’t be able to understand anything too in-depth anyway.


The final reason that came up on multiple occasions was the desire to change the image of scientists and make science more accessible. This is especially true of high school and younger audiences but also the public in general. Many of those interviewed believed the public still had quite a negative view of scientists and wanted to improve this.


However, choosing to do public engagement work can also have negative consequences. The time demands are often off putting and the rewards seem minimal. There also a fear held by many of not being able answer specific question or saying something incorrect. Outreach was seen as an add on to the CV, but not something that was going to make a scientists stand out as an active researcher.



While a more detailed account is not possible in the framework of this paper, I have begun to outline some of the values that underpin engagement practices at CERN. As is the nature and organisation of CERN, with many different experiments and departments having their own communication functions, both internal and external communication at CERN can often be quite fragmented. With each experiment having their own messages they want to get across to various audiences, it is difficult for CERN to present a united message. Yet scientists are united in their acknowledgment that CERN has as a publicly funded organisation a responsibility to communicate their research. While that is a widely held opinion, there are numerous other values held by scientists that impact on their willingness to engage. We have also seen how digital technologies, especially the use of social media, have been utilised by those at CERN to put these values in practice. The use of video links to the control room allows scientist to reach distant audiences and change the views they hold of scientists. Social media allows direct interactions between scientists and publics, allowing scientists to not only explain what is happening with their money, but to also increase scientific knowledge amongst the public. Further research is being carried out to explore how digital scholarship has impacted on other areas of communication, such as the work of the CERN press office. Examining how significant events at CERN been communicated online will allow me to explore the products of communication, while continued observation of the CERN press office would allow me explore communication as a process.



Amaldi, E. (1955). CERN, The European council for nuclear research. Il Nuovo Cimento. 10(2), 339-354.

Boyer, E. L. (1991). The Scholarship of Teaching from: Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate. College Teaching, 39(1), 11-13.

CERN. (2013a). About CERN. Available: Last accessed 10th June 2013.

CERN. (2013b) Member states. Avaliable: Last accessed 10th June 2013

Holliman, R. (2011). Advocacy in the tail: Exploring the implications of ‘climategate’ for science journalism and public debate in the digital age. Journalism, 12(7), 832-846.

Mintzberg, H. (1985). strategy formation in an adhocracy .Administrative science quarterly. 30(2), 160-197.

Pearce, N. (2011). Digital scholarship considered: how new technologies could transform academic work. Education, 16(1), 1-6

Scanlon, E. (2013). Scholarship in the digital age: Open educational resources, publication and public engagement. British Journal of Educational Technology. doi: 10.1111/bjet.12010

Weller, M. (2011). The digital scholar: How technology is transforming scholarly practice. Basingstoke: Bloomsbury Academic.


A version of this paper was presented to the “Science in Public” conference, University of Nottingham, 2013.


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[1] ALICE – A Large Ion Collider Experiment (Accessed 12/02/2013) ATLAS – A Toroidal LHC Apparatus (Accessed 12/02/2013) CMS – Compact Muon Spectrometer (Accessed 12/02/2013) LHCb – Large Hadron Collider beauty (Accessed 12/02/2013)

[2] CERN: Taking a loser look at the LHC. (Accessed 01/02/2013).