Robinson (2019) identifies a range of what he calls ‘mechanisms’ that are embedded in CERN’s institutional design that have allowed it to overcome the threat of gridlock that besets any multilateral collaborative endeavour. The pathways in the left-hand column of Table 9.1 refers to Hale and Held’s (2017) theory of gridlock-busting factors. The right-hand column then details to which extent and in which forms these factors can be found within CERN. Let us now take a closer look at what lies behind these mechanisms.
Smart Institutional Design
The 1953 Convention articulates CERN’s mission and institutional design. It offers a sense of purpose and ground rules for governance that have stood the organization in good stead. It is crystal clear about what CERN is to be and not to be. The Convention explicitly instructs all staff to work without fear or favour for the benefit of the international, collaborative entity that CERN is and not to be influenced by preferences, demands and hints from any of the member states or other research institutes. The Convention stipulates that the fruits of all its work should be made publicly available.
The Convention also limits CERN’s activities to scientific collaborative research on high-energy particles, laying down clear boundaries and norms for how it is to pursue its activities: ‘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’ (Convention 1953, Article II,1). A former director-general notes: ‘The spirit from the beginning, was that we are not at CERN to profit; we are there to help to achieve the common objective. A principle introduced by the founding fathers that still exists today’ (quoted in Robinson 2019: 43).
This clear delimitation of CERN’s mission—no military pursuits—provides the Council with a key lever to check on mission creep and ensure the coherence of resource allocations without stifling innovation in how CERN researchers pursue the mandate. The CERN Council is the supreme authority of the organization. Appointed by the Council for a single 5-year term, the Director-General leads the CERN Laboratory on a day-to-day basis, supported by a senior management team called the Directorate. Below them operate a series of departments. All major policy and funding decisions require Council approval. The Council controls CERN’s activities in all matters scientific, technical and administrative. It approves programs of activity, adopts the budgets and reviews expenditure. Each of the 23 member states has two delegates on the Council: one science administrator and one leading scientist.
The Convention provides for a ‘one member, one vote’ decision-making mechanism within the Council, thus steering CERN’s governance away from the politics of (financial) weight that plague so many other intergovernmental organizations (Goetz and Patz 2017). This mechanism creates a stable, level-playing field and has survived the growth of the organization from 12 to 23 member states (late 2019) and the attendant differentiation of member state resources and capabilities.
Most Council decisions require a simple majority, but some, such as the appointment of a new director-general, require two-thirds majorities. In practice, the Council reaches decisions by consensus and strives for unanimity. The Council is supported by two pivotal advisory committees: the Scientific Policy Committee and the Finance Committee. The Scientific committee is composed of top scientists regardless of nationality who are elected into membership by their peers on the committee. The Finance Committee consists of technical experts from the member states and mainly focuses on matters related to financial contributions.
In Robinson’s (2019) fieldwork at CERN, many long-serving staff voiced how proud they were of ‘their’ Convention as a document that sets the scene for fostering international collaboration and provides a healthy balance between top-down and bottom-up management approaches. As one interviewee granted: ‘we owe a lot to our founding fathers both on the scientific side and wise people in the ministries and governments at that time who made that happen’ (Robinson 2019: 43).
A Conducive Culture
CERN’s leading figures embraced the norms of collaboration, trust, transparency early on. As an example, the internal norm became that of individual but collective authorship of papers, both within as well as, when pertinent, across the collaborative experiments. This has meant alphabetically listing all members of a collaboration as authors on any paper written based on data from that project by any member of that collaboration. As a result, some CERN papers ended up having over 500 authors. Though not without difficulties and trade-offs for the career choices of the individuals involved (Birnholtz 2008), this norm of credit-sharing helped the CERN circumnavigate most of the credit-driven professional competition and rivalries between individual researchers and groups within the organization that have such a debilitating effect in many other laboratories and research groups in the academic world.
CERN’s institutionalization owes a lot to the way in which it has evolved norms and practices of balance-seeking. Balance between funding member states and the spending CERN administrators. Balance between small and large contributors. Balance between centralized lab and infrastructure funding and bottom-up funding of the experiments. Balance between getting on with current work and preparing the ground for taking on new challenges and realizing future ambitions that may be decades away. Balance between the scientists’ advances in fundamental physics and the engineers’ development of the technological tools required to test them. Balance between running a tight ship financially and maintaining the ability to respond flexibly to financial setbacks or emerging expenditures. Balance between the patience required to achieve major scientific breakthroughs and the need to be seen to be active, relevant and impactful now, which is critical to maintaining a global public and political support base. Balance between banking on the authority of established scientific leaders and empowering the innovative irreverence of emerging research talents.
Such balancing is necessary to prevent the twin dangers of gridlock and mission creep (Selznick  referred to conservatism and opportunism). The conditions for a balanced institution must be created in its organizational structure and nourished through its organizational culture. Take the ‘power distance’ (Hofstede 1991) between the established ‘God-professors’ and next-generation budding talents. In its examination of the economic and societal impact of CERN, the OECD (2014) paints a picture that epitomizes what Goodsell (2011) considers a ‘prime quality’ of public institutions: its official truths are open to contestation because this power distance is actively kept within bounds. Here’s what the OECD (2014: 65) reports about CERN:
All large research institutions are necessarily hierarchical organisations, with well-defined structures and procedures for ensuring responsibility, accountability and reporting. CERN’s version of the hierarchy is relatively “flat”, especially where it concerns communication and interaction across the vertical dimension of the hierarchy. It is not unusual for junior members of the staff, or researchers from collaborating institutions (even graduate students) to “buttonhole” the senior laboratory leaders in order to present original ideas or opinions. In part, this is a consequence of the inherently meritocratic nature of scientific research but, at CERN, it is reinforced by the special status of the laboratory that sets it apart from traditional institutions.
Another good example is the funding regime. Its ingenuous architecture is a key source of CERN’s strength. It provides a solid central base funding but allows no one to get ‘fat’ and complacent. It incentivizes entrepreneurship and coalition-building among staff members, research institutes and nation states while hedging against excessive risk accumulation:
Countries contribute to a central fund for the infrastructure of the lab as a whole. However, while the infrastructure of the lab comes from the pooled fund, the experiments do not. This means that while the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) was built by CERN using the money contributed to the central fund, the four giant detector experiments were funded, designed, and built by independent collaborations of nations. This way, if one falls behind, it doesn’t necessarily mean the entire project will suffer. (Lucibella 2014)
The funding regime spreads the load fairly among member states; their contributions are pegged to (developments in) their GDP. If times are lean in a particular member state, its representatives in the Council do not face pressure to go home and fight unwinnable budgetary battles with their science and treasury departments in order to maintain a set contribution amount. Moreover, as critical episodes involving budgetary and political turbulence in the United Kingdom and then Germany in the 1980s and 1990s have shown, there is a collective norm of empathy and a propensity for pragmatic long-term thinking within the Council and in CERN’s Directorate and Finance Committee. This leads them to respond flexibly to the budgetary and political exigencies of the moment by accommodating the predicaments of certain member states through collective burden-sharing. Grand as it may sound, particularly when it comes to the politics of budgetary processes within publicly funded organizations, fairness, empathy and adaptability are demonstrably built into the fabric of CERN’s decision-making structures and the rules by which they operate.
The Importance of Leadership
CERN would never have existed but for the visionary leadership of its founders. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, leading physicists such as De Broglie and Rabi gelled with diplomats and other promotors of European cooperation to argue the case for transnational science collaboration. To persuade not just small states (who had nowhere else to go anyhow) but also Europe’s major powers France and Great Britain (whose geostrategic preferences and academic chauvinism might otherwise have led them to turn against participation in a joint enterprise) and their World War 2 opponents Germany and Italy to partake in this coalition was a major coup of academic entrepreneurship and diplomatic ingenuity.
Also, the sheer stability of its scientific and administrative leadership cadres in the critical early years of the organization has proved an important factor. During the first fifteen years of its lifespan the Council was dominated by a core group of men—they were all men—of the first hour who had held key positions in CERN and/or were representatives of countries that carried weight. The same goes to a large extent for the Scientific Policy Committee. This stability at the core helped to create interpersonal trust between these institution-building leaders. It helped them to contain centrifugal forces and deal with emerging conflicts pragmatically. These members of the institution-building generation took up their roles in a particular way: they were not acting as national gatekeepers but as ambassadors for the organization within their respective constituencies (Pestre 1988).
Furthermore, with multiple power centres and multiple balancing acts between constituencies, carrying different values and interests, an organization like CERN can only be steered and adapted through a form of dispersed leadership (Verbeek 2009). Over the decades, a now entrenched form of power-sharing has developed between Directorate, Council, the committees, the divisions the experimental collaborations. The rules of engagement provide a conducive setting in which individual and teams of scientists can ‘do their thing’, yet within parameters and levels of resourcing and accountability that are negotiated and determined in the interplay between the key institutional nodes in the governance structure. The Director-General is the face of the organization in the world outside CERN, and an influential authority figure within it, but cannot and will not impose major policy decisions on the system. Smooth relationships between DGs and Council presidents are essential for greasing the wheels of the relationship between the core executive team (the Directorate) and its ‘board of directors’ (the Council).
Finally, in a science organization such as CERN it is pivotal that a significant share of the leadership structures and processes are animated by professional authority figures, whose leadership claims are rooted in substantive expertise and peer esteem rather than managerial qualities or political networks. CERN is not run solely by ‘administrators’, far from it. There is a large and vocal community of scientists that jealously ensures that Parkinson’s law—‘(administrative) work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion’—will not creep up on them. The scientific community needs to perceive a DG as ‘one of us’; the very few that did not have a stellar scientific CV had to work hard to earn its respect.
A Path-Dependent Collaborative Regime
CERN began as a collaborative proposition. Collaboration remains at its heart today. The language of collaboration is deeply entrenched in CERN’s structures and semantics. CERN’s entire modus operandi belies the notion that science is essentially or even predominantly a competitive enterprise.
The genius of CERN’s formula is that it does not deny the existence and propulsion power of competition between scientists, but that is has found a way of harnessing these competitive instincts within an overall framework of collaboration. In models of collaborative governance (e.g. Ansell and Gash 2008; Emerson and Nabatchi 2015), the essential fuel that makes collaborations succeed is a composite of felt interdependence around a task or ambition that is salient to all the parties involved; the growth of trust and alignment of motivations between participants that may have widely varying perspectives, responsibilities and values and are subject to their own governance structures and accountabilities; commitment to a process of joint deliberation that they consider fair, safe and effective in forging paths towards concerted action; and eventually a generative cycle of trust-building begetting joint action that produces tangible benefits to all which in turn increases the appetite for continued collaboration. The story of CERN that we have told in this chapter refers to each of these elements.
In addition, however, we should consider the important role of path dependencies that started to happen from the early 1960s on and were brought to a new level once the LHC project had begun and eventually produced the results that turned CERN into a near-mythical institution. The OECD’s (2014: 63) analysis of CERN’s impacts on innovation picks up on this point:
CERN’s network of institutional and personal contacts played a critical role in catalysing R&D, and in overcoming difficulties in meeting cost and schedule goals. To some extent, the network is there simply because of the passage of time (the institutions concerned have been interacting for sixty years). It is true, as well, that national research organisations receive their funds from the same agencies that finance CERN, so that the linkages emerge naturally during the elaboration of national science policies.
Once the participating nations decided to pool their resources in this domain of science and kept at it for over a decade, this changed the incentive structures of the next generations of high-energy physicists and institutions. There was now this unique common pool resource without which the experiments that needed to be done could not be performed. As similar accelerators in the United States and Japan closed down in the 1960s–1980s or were never built, there were no alternatives left, thus raising the costs of exiting from the collaboration (or of not entering it in the first place). Once thought of as a mere resource, CERN became an intellectual ‘hub’ and a source of professional identity, further increasing its professional centrality, the attractiveness of membership and thus the centripetal pull of its resource claims.