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Austria Reverses Course, Stays in CERN

Austria will remain a member of CERN. Yesterday, Austrian chancellor Werner Faymann overruled his science minister, Johannes Hahn, and said that Austria would not pull out of the European particle physics center near Geneva at the end of 2010, as Hahn had asserted on 7 May. Faymann said he didn't want to damage Austria's reputation as a reliable partner in international collaborations, but there appear to be other factors involved in the U-turn.

The government of Lower Austria is understood to have kicked up a fuss because CERN scientists are helping it build a particle-beam cancer therapy center called MedAustron. Lower Austria officials were concerned that a severing of ties with CERN would delay the project. The announced withdrawal also prompted a public debate about the value of such fundamental research. Austria's scientific community rallied very rapidly, and an online petition garnered more than 32,000 signatures within days.

The governing coalition's internal politics may have played a role as well, as Faymann is a Social Democrat and Hahn a Conservative. A few weeks ago, some high school reforms proposed by the Social Democrat education minister were quashed after a public outcry, and Hahn's shaming may have an element of scores being settled.

Whatever the internal squabbles, Hahn was widely criticized for failing to consult first with the scientific community, CERN, or the Austrian chancellor. "It was not very well handled," says Christian Fabjan, director of the Institute for High Energy Physics in the Austrian Academy of Sciences. "There were very many arguments against withdrawal, and very few for it."