Collision course: Israeli physicists are divided over the benefits of full membership of CERN. Credit: CERN

Keen to boost its role in the European scientific community, Israel's science ministry is considering whether to apply for full membership of the European Laboratory for Particle Physics (CERN). But although some Israeli physicists are enthusiastic, others worry about the the financial and scientific implications.

The 1992 agreement granting Israel observer status, similar to other countries such as the United States, Japan and Russia, is about to expire. Under this agreement, Israel pays 20 per cent of full membership dues — about 2 million Swiss francs (US$1.2 million) a year. In exchange, Israeli researchers and postdocs can participate in CERN research programmes, and Israeli companies can bid for CERN tenders.

Renewal of observer status seems the most likely short-term outcome. But some Israeli particle physicists are pushing hard for full membership. The reasons, they admit, are as much political as scientific.

“Israel is no longer a Third World country. It has to take responsibility for the things that large countries do. It has to support first-class science,” says Giora Mikenberg, professor of particle physics at the Weizmann Institute of Science.

Mikenberg, who leads the muon project at CERN's Large Hadron Collider, thinks that membership of CERN could lead to Israel becoming a full partner in other European scientific programmes — such as the European Space Agency — and would show that Israel was a scientific power of the first rank. Full membership would also allow Israelis to be CERN employees and to participate in scientific decision-making there.

The main problem, Mikenberg acknowledges, is the price tag. The ministries of science and industry, which fund Israel's observer status at CERN, will not be able to finance full membership, meaning that the cabinet would have to allocate money from the national treasury, he says.

Israeli minister of science Matan Vilnai visited CERN recently and was impressed by what he saw. An informal ministry forum of industrialists, researchers and government officials has discussed full membership and made a favourable recommendation to Vilnai.

Sources in the ministry claim that Vilnai discussed the possibility of full membership with CERN officials. But CERN director-general Luciano Maiani denies having any conversations about the matter with Vilnai or anyone else. “The issue is not on the agenda,” he insists. “There is no official move in that direction.”

Other Israeli physicists are doubtful about the scientific benefits of full membership, and worry that it might actually have negative consequences. Shmuel Nussinov, a theoretical physicist at Tel Aviv University, says that he would welcome closer ties with CERN, but worries that the additional funding needed might come at the expense of existing research.

Another physicist says that, at present, Israeli physicists can participate in CERN research projects but have other options. Full membership of CERN could mean putting all the country's eggs in one basket, he says, and might make it harder for Israelis to find funding to take part in particle-physics research elsewhere.