Researchers in Austria have started an online petition in protest at the country’s decision to withdraw from the CERN particle physics lab. So far over 1500 people have signed the petition, which will be sent to Johannes Hahn, the Austrian science minister, who announced on Thursday that the country would cut its funding for CERN worth around €20m per year.

The decision to pull out from CERN after being a member for exactly 50 years comes only months before the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) — the world’s biggest particle accelerator — starts up.

The decision now has to be approved by Austria’s government, parliament and then president. If it is signed by the president then Austria will cancel the membership of CERN by the end of 2010. The decision could affect up to 170 Austrian-based particle physicists.

Budget concerns

Austria currently supplies 2.2% of CERN’s budget with the rest coming from the lab’s other 19 member states. However, the €20m that Austria spends on CERN makes up 70% of Austria’s funding for international research.

Physicists in Austria are particularly angry as the science budget has been increased by 15% this year, while the cost of membership at CERN currently amounts to around 0.5% of the total science budget.

“I am really disturbed that the decision was taken by the ministry without any consultation,” says Christian Fabjan, director of the Institute for High Energy Physics at the Austrian Academy of Sciences in Vienna.

“The pullout would be a serious blow for academic research,” says Fabjan, “and it sends a terrible signal to the international community and to researchers in Austria doing basic research.”

Fabjan said that his institute has been promised funding for a few more years if the decision is made to pull out, but he admits that Austria would become “second-class” citizens at CERN if the decision is taken.

A "grotesque" affair

Austria has mostly contributed to building the Compact Muon Solenoid, one of the four big detectors at the LHC, which will search for the Higgs boson and look for evidence of physics beyond the Standard Model, such as supersymmetry, or extra dimensions. Here they have designed systems to detect and measure the momentum of individual particles resulting from the high-energy collisions.

“I find the pullout grotesque,” says Anton Rebhan, a theorist at the Vienna University of Technology who has previously worked in the CERN theory department as a postdoc. “I profited enormously from the possibility to carry out research at CERN, which would no longer be open for young Austrian physicists [if the decision is made].”

Austria would only be the third country to leave CERN. Yugoslavia, one of the 12 founding members left in 1961 and never rejoined, while Spain joined in 1961, left in 1969 and then rejoined in 1983.