Socio-Economic Perspectives on ATLAS

15 June 2008 | By

Building the ATLAS detector has been a mammoth and innovative project. Sociologists, economists, and entrepreneurs have studied how such projects benefit society and the economy.

The ATLAS collaboration has a number of unique characteristics, because of the size of the project, together with its complex scientific nature. It is the largest collaborative effort ever attempted in the physical sciences with more than 2200 physicists from 38 countries.

One of these particularities lies in how ATLAS is organised. The most significant difference between ATLAS and a private corporation is the process of decision-making.

Corporations are usually top-down organizations - decisions are taken by management. However, within the ATLAS collaboration, decisions are taken at each level of the organization, making ATLAS a bottom-up organization.

Philip Tuertscher is a graduate student at the University of St. Gallen in Lausanne doing his thesis on the structure of the ATLAS project. “The way the ATLAS collaboration is self-organized and manages itself is very fascinating,” he says. “It is something that a lot of people in industry cannot believe.”

One of the characteristics of ATLAS that has drawn the attention of managers of private enterprises is how the innovation happens in an environment with such a high degree of uncertainty. In the building of the ATLAS detector, it is difficult to plan in advance because it involves a lot of novel technologies that are full of surprises.

Therefore, scientists and engineers working at ATLAS have a very high tolerance for uncertainty. “Probably this is why the ATLAS collaboration works,” Tuertscher says. “For a lot of people in industry it is a nightmare that they don't have anybody who tells them exactly what to do. They seek certainty”.

ATLAS,group photo,USA,Collaboration,General
Several hundred of the 1700 U.S. scientists contributing to the LHC accelerator and experiments gathered in June 2008 in CERN's building 40. (Image: Claudia Marcelloni/ATLAS Experiment)

In ATLAS, people tend to keep decisions open for a long time. However, in industry, people try to make decisions very early for financial reasons.

For example, recently, there was a change in one of the ATLAS end-cap detectors to allow parts of the inner detector to be inserted later on. This required people who were actually not responsible for the inner detector to make the changes. “However, in the interest of the overall ATLAS collaboration, they were ready to make those changes,”

Tuertscher explains. “Imagine to have this in industry; engineers would go crazy in such a situation.”

So how is it possible that ATLAS can work like that? Primarily, because the goal of ATLAS is not to generate profit but to generate knowledge.

Companies are designed to develop projects to be sold. Knowledge generation is only a side-effect for them. ATLAS, on the other hand, does not have the burden of generating profit.

“Public scientific collaborations have certainly industrial benefits,” Tuertscher says. “But they must be seen as a means, as the main objective and mission of public research organizations is to discover.”

However, going deeper into particle physics also has positive side effects that contribute enormously to society; probably those most famous are new therapies for cancer and the creation of the World Wide Web.