Atomic Scientists Divided: How the Ukraine War Ruined Physics | drizzle

IIn normal times, the four major physics experiments using proton collisions at Cern’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Switzerland publish numerous scientific articles a year. But in March 2022, the number of new research papers from the LHC experiments dropped to zero. The reason: lack of agreement on how to list Russian and Belarusian scientists and institutes, if at all. The temporary compromise, in effect so far, is not to publish.

Publications are the hard currency of research, used to exchange information and evidence of the contributions of individuals and funding agencies. The four largest LHC experiments comprise collaborations of thousands of scientists and engineers, with articles usually credited to all project members.

According to sources at Cern, after the invasion of Ukraine some members objected to co-authoring with Russian institutes and even people working for them (representing about 7% of contributors). Fedor Ratnikov, a Russian physicist, explains that no publication policy satisfied the required two-thirds majority of the institutes participating in each collaboration. “We have Ukrainian collaborators for whom this question is naturally extremely painful. [But] most of my Ukrainian colleagues do not extend responsibility for the invasion to their colleagues in Russian institutes. I would say some of my colleagues in the EU are much more radical.”

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Cern: what to watch out for in 2023


The four big experiments at the Large Hadron Collider are dedicated to studying the Standard Model – the theory that currently describes the world’s smallest building blocks – and, most importantly, any deviations from it that might arise.

Properties of the Higgs boson
For Atlas and CMS, the two “general purpose” workhorses, the properties of the Higgs boson are the new unknown. After establishing its presence a decade ago, scientists are still exploring how it interacts with other particles. Anything different from the predictions of the standard model would be a welcome arrival, especially after years of no evidence of other proposed theories that complement the SM, such as supersymmetry.

Matter-antimatter symmetry
The LHCb experiment was built to look more deeply at the tiny differences between matter and antimatter involving the so-called beauty quark, one of the biggest puzzles in the current model. Since last summer, the LHC has been performing more proton collisions at higher energy, and the researchers plan to see if the discrepancies strengthen and uncover clues about them.

Right after the Big Bang
The LHC not only collides protons, but also the nuclei of lead atoms, creating a state similar to the moment after the Big Bang. In previous years, ALICE (A Larger Ion Collider Experiment) studied this “quark-gluon plasma”; now he aims to analyze the data. Eleni Petrakou

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Andreas Höecker, spokesperson for the Atlas experiment, points out that the issue is “exclusively related to the form of institutional recognition, given the statements of high-level representatives of Russian academic institutions… and the ties of high-level funding bodies to Russia. government”.

Since March, the four LHC experiments have continued to prepare new papers, submitting them to journals for peer review and freezing their publication. The unreleased pipeline now includes over 70 tracks.

Public versions are uploaded to the arXiv preprint server, but both they and journal submissions do not have a list of authors and funding agencies. Where in the past this list took up several pages, there is now a general attribution, for example “Atlas collaboration”.

Scientists in European countries and the US say it has so far had little impact on funding or awarding PhDs. However, a senior LHC scientist from outside Europe says: “Keep this political approach for some time and it can create problems for students, postdocs and ourselves.” Brajesh Choudhary, a professor at the University of Delhi and a member of Cern’s CMS detector experiment, says: “If you don’t publish in the next few months, PhD students, postdocs and young professors will face a lot of problems.”

Choudhary points out that articles without names and institutions may be acceptable within experiments, but not by outside scientists and professors, and that institutions care about mentions because they give them ranking. As for the funding agencies, if they’re not recognized, “I can tell you … they’re not going to react very positively.”

Last spring, the Cern Council decided to terminate the observer status of the Russian Federation and cooperation agreements with Belarus when they expire in two years (Ukraine is an associate member of Cern, whose regular members include 22 European states and Israel, cooperation extending to dozens of countries around the world). A Cern spokesperson says that “the measures address [the military invasion of an associate member state]which is against the values ​​of peaceful collaboration,” adding that “the decision leaves the door ajar for peaceful scientific collaboration should conditions permit in the future.”

The exterior of the Atlas building at Cern.
The exterior of the Atlas building at Cern. Photo: Claudia Marcelloni/Cern Atlas Project

Regarding publications, at a LHC board meeting in October, Cern management admitted that “discussion within collaborations is very difficult” and urged the boards of the various experiments to that “authority should be based on scientific foundations”.

Ratnikov, who worked in accelerator-based experiments for American and German institutes before returning to Moscow in 2016 as a professor, believes that halting publications is not the biggest problem. “From discussions with my Russian colleagues, no one can accept what Russia is doing in Ukraine. They continue to do their work: doing scientific research, teaching students… [We] have this negative pressure at Cern despite many years, sometimes a significant part of [a scientist’s] life, spent for the success of the Cern experiments.”

According to John Ellis, a professor at King’s College London and a veteran theoretical physicist at Cern: “The Russians working at Cern are covered by international cooperation agreements. If these collapse then there is no legal basis for them to work in Switzerland and yet some have signed open letters of protest [against] war.” He explains that ending observer status in 2024 provides cover until then in hopes of a permanent diplomatic solution, but calls for “general protection of scientists.”

Although unique, the case of the LHC experiments is part of a wider trend. The German Research Foundation has warned scientists against publishing with co-authors from Russian institutes. The Web of Science database that tracks citations has stopped evaluating articles from Russia. There have been reports of individual referees rejecting articles. And as Russian institutes are excluded from international projects, some fields are seeing a direct impact – such as climate change research, which is being slowed by the suspension of Arctic collaboration.

In a letter published in Science last spring, five prominent Western scientists urged their colleagues not to “abandon Russian scientists.” One of them, Nina Fedoroff, professor emeritus of biology at Pennsylvania State University, says that “some of the [the situation] it seems quite symbolic”. In her view, science diplomacy “can separate the bad actors from the good actors, but we do much less through official channels than we could.”

Regarding the LHC impasse, the people at Cern point to a solution implemented at Japan’s Belle II particle physics experiment. Belle II began listing authors with institute affiliations replaced by Orcid (Open Researcher and Collaborator ID), an identification scheme widely used in physics research that links authors to their institutions. However, the Polish government opposed this tactic, not accepting the explicit omission of Polish affiliation. The issue is still up in the air.

With the international particle physics community in an unusual limbo, for scientists like Ellis, “Maintaining scientific collaboration is a top priority as a great way to bring nations together to solve humanity’s problems.” Or, as Fedoroff notes: “During the so-called Cold War, interactions between Russian and American physicists and between physicists and their respective governments were credited with keeping the war cold.”

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