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Column: Unlike many of my peers, I was given the amazing opportunity to work at CERN

There is no public scientific institution its equal to CERN – yet young Irish people continue to be excluded from it, writes James Casey.

James Casey

AS A MATHEMATICS undergraduate during the summer of 1993 I had a part-time gig at Trinity College Dublin giving a course for local secondary school students on computer programming. The department had advanced facilities offering fledging internet access and Unix cluster accounts to its students. I had a strong interest in the early internet and Justin Mason from Iona Technologies (now at Irish startup Swrve) had introduced me to the World Wide Wide in early 1993. During that summer, I set up what turned out to be one of the world’s first 100 web sites for the Mathematics department. I was hooked.

The most exciting work on the web at that time was happening in CERN. As I was born in Northern Ireland, and UK is a member state, unlike many of my peers in Dublin I was able to take up an opportunity to go to CERN in 1994 as a summer student.

It was an incredible time of learning. I sat in an office two doors down from Tim Berners-Lee and some of the most innovative people in computing were brainstorming ideas. It was a culture of idea sharing, a culture of discussion, of creation and innovation. There was a feeling that through collaboration there was nothing we couldn’t do. What was brainstormed over coffee five years later were ideas on which multi-million dollar internet companies were built. We simultaneously realised that this was completely new while underestimating just how significant it was.

While there I developed a tool for maintaining link consistency inside large auto-generated documentation webs, and had a chance to present a paper at the second World Wide Web conference in 1994. The whole experience changed my perspective, and after graduating I spent the the dot-com years as a software engineer in start-ups in San Francisco, Cambridge and London.

Lost opportunities for Ireland

In 2002 I returned to CERN first as a Fellow, then a staff member – roles only open to applicants from member states – and spent nine years as part of the world’s largest scientific collaboration helping to build the worldwide computing grid for analysing data from the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). The LHC was built in collaboration with over 10,000 scientists and engineers from over 100 countries. I had the opportunity to manage teams and mentor students from all the CERN member states including Italy, Portugal, Spain, Poland, Greece, Germany and Finland as well as collaborate closely with teams from observers states like USA and India.

Seeing contracts awarded and grant proposals getting green lights, I was regularly reminded of lost financial opportunities to Ireland’s universities, students, and graduates – let alone material scientists, electrical and civil engineering firms and other academic bodies. The less tangible benefits of joint collaboration with European and international partners are harder to quantify.

No one present could forget the sense of shared success the day the LHC was turned on, 10 September 2008, nor the inauguration event a few weeks later attended by political leaders from CERN’s 20 member states’ staff. To me, personally, Ireland’s absence from that collaboration seemed such as a waste.

With the successful build and launch of the LHC, it was time for me to move on and bring my expertise of large scale computing to the private sector. I now write tools to automate the configuration, monitoring, deployment and scaling of cloud infrastructure with Seattle-based startup CHEF.

It’s not too late

I am very heartened by Minister of State for Research and Innovation Sean Sherlock’s recent announcement of a review of the costs and benefits of Ireland’s membership of international research organisations including CERN. I disagreed with the conclusion of the last review which suggested that costs outweighed the benefits to Ireland. I think it was an extreme oversight not to be a part of the engineering phase of the Collider during the period 1998-2008 – but it’s not too late.

CERN will celebrate its 60th anniversary in 2014. There is no public scientific institution its equal in terms of the scale and complexity of problems being analysed and solved. No longer excluding young Irish people from being a part of this, from learning and growing from it, can only help Ireland.

Aside from countless experts coming together and solving some of the biggest, hardest engineering, mathematical, experimental physics problems in the world, what anyone who has had the opportunity to be part of CERN will tell you is that, above all, what they have learned is that when a group of people come together through the spirit of collaboration and shared motivation there is nothing we cannot do.

James Casey is a software engineer with 20 years experience. He currently is Product Lead for Seattle tech start-up CHEF. His expertise is building monitoring and analytical tools for operating large computing infrastructures. Twitter: @jamesc_000

Column: Ireland is excluded from some of the world’s most fascinating scientific research

News: Ireland “risks lagging behind” by not having CERN membership

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James Casey

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