Austria could withdraw from CERN after 2010. Credit: CERN

Austria has announced that it will withdraw from CERN, Europe's premier high-energy physics laboratory, which is located near Geneva, Switzerland. The announcement — just months before the restart of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the world's most powerful particle accelerator — has left Austrian physicists stunned.

"It is a black day for Austrian science," says Christian Fabjan, who heads the Institute for High Energy Physics at the Austrian Academy of Sciences in Vienna. Fabjan says that he was "totally shocked" by the announcement, which was made on 8 May by Johannes Hahn, the science minister and a member of the conservative Austrian People's Party (ÖVP). Fabjan says the timing of the decision — roughly six months before the beginning of the LHC's first science run — couldn't be worse. "We have invested heavily in the construction of the LHC," he says. "It's bizarre."

Only two other nations have withdrawn from CERN in its 55-year history: Yugoslavia pulled out of the lab in 1961, and Spain left in 1969, only to rejoin in 1983.

It is a black day for Austrian science. Christian Fabjan , Institute of High Energy Physics

Austria joined CERN in 1959, one of the first nations to do so. Two of the laboratory's directors, Willibald Jentschke and Victor Frederick Weisskopf, have been Austrian-born, and at present the country has 170 scientists working on the LHC and its two largest experiments, ATLAS and CMS. Under the terms of the withdrawal, Austria's participation would officially end in 2010.

"Nobody is happy about the decision. We would have loved to stay in CERN," says Nikola Donig, a spokesman for the Austrian ministry of science. But, he adds, "budgets are tight". Austria's budget, completed this April, actually increases funding for science, he says. But at the same time, private funding for basic research has dropped off dramatically since the start of the economic crisis.

More bang for their euro?

The government will use its contribution to CERN — roughly €17 million per year, or 2% of the laboratory's budget — to make up some of that shortfall and to begin participation in other international collaborations in physics, sociology and biotechnology. Among the projects that may benefit are the European Biobanking and Biomolecular Research Resources Infrastructure project, the European X-ray Free Electron Laser near Hamburg, Germany, and the Facility for Antiproton and Ion Research in Darmstadt, Germany.

Nobody is happy about the decision. Nikola Donig , Austrian Ministry of Science

Donig says the decision is all about getting the greatest return for the government's money. "We want to fund fields where we can have more impact for businesses and universities in Austria," he says.

Fabjan rejects that reasoning. "CERN is more than just an excellent laboratory," he says. In addition to producing world-class physics, the lab is a productive training ground for Austrian engineers, scientists and computer programmers, he says.

Rolf-Dieter Heuer, CERN's director-general, will travel to Vienna early next week to meet Hahn and discuss the withdrawal. Heuer declined an invitation to talk to Nature News in advance of that meeting, but in a statement to CERN staff he said that he was "sorry" to hear of Austria's decision.

Fabjan says that the government has assured him that it will try to find a way to allow scientists to continue to work on the LHC. But he is worried that, in the current economic climate, other nations will consider following suit. "One has to be concerned about this," he says.

The decision still has to be approved by Austria's government, parliament and the president. Donig says that he expects a final decision on the withdrawal in the autumn — around the time the LHC restarts.