HL Deb 18 July 1994 vol 557 cc9-10

3.2 p.m.

Lord Redesdale asked Her Majesty's Government:

Why at the June meeting of the CERN Council approval for the large hadron collider was withheld.

The Minister of State, Department for Education (Baroness Blatch)

My Lords, the process of approval for the large hadron collider was opened at the 100th session of the CERN Council last month. However, Germany and the United Kingdom were not ready formally to approve the project pending satisfactory resolution of certain financial aspects, in particular the question of an additional special contribution from CERN's host states. The United Kingdom remains firmly committed to the project—a position reaffirmed in the council meeting. We are optimistic that a satisfactory solution can be found to the outstanding issues enabling the voting procedure to be completed by all member states in the near future.

Lord Redesdale

My Lord, I thank the Minister for her reply. Can she give any indication when she expects the approval to be given?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, it would be wrong of me to pre-empt the approval, but we are hopeful. There are certainly signs that the host nations, France and Switzerland, are prepared to consider the possibility of making a premium contribution over and above their normal contribution. The matter of voting for increases in expenditure is sensitive. The figure of 55 per cent. is all that is required to vote an increase in expenditure. It is worth looking at the list. Only four nations together contribute 70 per cent. of the funds; and yet 10 nations contributing between them 8 per cent. of the funds could vote for an increase in expenditure. Such factors need to be resolved, but we understand that they are very close to being resolved.

Lord Elton

My Lords, can my noble friend tell us what a large hadron collider is, and whether a smaller one might not do?

Baroness Blatch

Well, my Lords, the noble Lord did ask the question! It is a particle accelerator or atom smasher used to investigate the building blocks of the universe by creating conditions akin to those existing shortly after the Big Bang. The machine will bring protons into head-on collision, and at higher energy levels than ever achieved before. The impact results in the creation of fundamental particles which will bring into range study of the top quark and potentially the discovery of the Higgs boson. The top quark is a sub-atomic particle that is the last undiscovered quark of the six quarks predicted by current scientific theory. Scientists worldwide have sought experimental evidence for the top quark since the discovery of the bottom quark at Fermilab in the United States in 1977.

Briefly, the Higgs boson is a hypothesised particle which, if it exists, would give the mechanism by which particles acquire mass and could help to explain why the universe is made up of matter and not anti-matter.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris

My Lords, on behalf of the entire House, perhaps I may express our gratitude to the Minister for that splendid account of the large hadron collider which I am happy to say coincides exactly with the information that I have been given. However, does she agree with me that if the United Kingdom were to withhold funds from the large hadron collider at CERN, it would be stating publicly for the first time that as regards sub-atomic particle physics Britain is no longer in the World Cup league but is relegated to the Vauxhall Conference league in pure science? With that possibility in mind, will she tell the House what the Government are doing to ensure that British companies benefit from this large physics project, whether or not we are funding it?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, it is an important point. If I may take the noble Lord's latter point first, we want to make absolutely certain that British companies do indeed benefit on many fronts from the breakthrough in science.

As for the commitment—or the possibility that if we do not come to an agreement it would somehow lessen that commitment—I can say absolutely that there will be resolution and that the United Kingdom will continue to be committed wholeheartedly to this project.

This project is important to the world as a whole. We believe that it is important to consider the widening of the base of those countries who contribute. We know that there is already interest from the United States, Canada and other countries—for example, India. Therefore we expect some widening of the base and widening of the contribution to this very expensive science.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, is there a possibility that the quark may turn out to be a "Boojum"?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I am getting into very deep water. I think there is every possibility that it will turn out not to be there at all.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, while I agree with the noble Baroness about the project's importance, would it not be possible for the CERN Council to make an approach to the American authorities for some contribution towards the costs on the basis that American scientists would be able to use the facilities when they are ready?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the important factor about America is, if I remember, that America abandoned its own superconducting supercollider. That was an £11 billion project. It has strengthened the case for collaboration with the CERN project. I believe that that is the basis for our hope that they will regard becoming involved in this project as a very profitable activity.