Hide table of contents


This is the second post in a series exploring existing approaches to regulation that seem relevant for thinking about governing AI.

The goal of this series is to provide a brief overview of a type regulation or a regulatory body so others can understand how they work and glean insights for AI governance. These posts are by no means exhaustive, and I would love for others to dig deeper on any topic within that seems useful or fruitful.

While I would be happy to answer any questions about the content below, to be honest I probably don't know the answer; I'm just a guy who did a bunch Googling in the hopes that someone can gain value from this very high level research.

Thank you to Akash Wasil for his inspiration and guidance in creating this series, and to Jakub Kraus for his invaluable feedback on earlier drafts.


European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN)

Along with the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA), the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) has been circulating as a model for an international AI research and governance body. UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has proposed such a body, and an openPetition calling for a CERN-inspired AI facility in Europe has garnered some public support.

This post provides an overview of CERN, emphasizing its potentially AI-relevant processes and programs.

Basic Facts

  • Established: 1954
    • Official name: “Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire” (CERN)
    • “European Organization for Nuclear Research” in English
  • Location: (just outside) Geneva, Switzerland
  • Purpose: founded as an intergovernmental organization to facilitate and promote fundamental research in physics
  • Mission: operate and provide access to particle accelerators; enable international scientific cooperation; train physicists, engineers, and technicians

Organization and Governance

  • Council: the highest authority of CERN
    • Consists of 46 members—two delegates for each of 23 Member States
      • One delegate represents their government’s administration, the other represents national scientific interests
      • Membership eligibility: founding document states that CERN will “provide for collaboration among European States,” but does not define this term or explicitly restrict “non-European States”
        • In practice, only EU or OECD states have been allowed full membership to CERN
        • Non-European states like India, Pakistan, and Turkey are “Associate Members” who pay a reduced contribution to CERN's budget but have limited participation and voting rights
        • US is not a member, but has “Observer Status” (along with Japan) and can attend Council sessions with no voting rights
      • To add a new member state, the Council must give a unanimous approval vote
      • Benefits of membership (according to UK assessment):
        • Industrial return: 50% of CERN budget is invested into contracts with private companies based in Member States that provide goods and services to CERN
        • Knowledge and skills: Member State citizens are eligible for staff employment; CERN employees return to their home country to fill in-demand STEM roles and spread their knowledge and skills
        • Science diplomacy: CERN membership can enhance a nation’s presence, visibility, and reputation in the international scientific community 
      • Member States can also participate in the Council with full voting rights, and therefore have direct input into CERN decisions
      • Scientists of non-Member States can still access facilities (see below)
      • Members are required to contribute to the funding of CERN
        • Council decides the contribution of each Member State based on their respective average national income
        • 2022 highest contributions: Germany (20.32% of total fund), UK (14.20%), France (13.42%)
        • US does not have contribution requirements, but has signed cooperation agreements with CERN that involve contributions (Ex: $531 million to construction of Large Hadron Collider in 1997; 2015 agreement with future contributions tbd)
    • Council determines CERN's scientific, technical, and administrative policies; defines strategic programs; sets annual goals; approves budgets
    • Council also appoints the Director-General: Chief Executive overseeing the administration of CERN and managing particle accelerators
    • Council typically meets four times a year
    • Each Member State has a single vote for each decision and most decisions require a simple majority—although in practice the Council aims for a consensus as close as possible to unanimity
  • Scientific Policy Committee: advises the Council on scientific matters
    • Makes recommendations to the Council on research priorities in CERN labs
    • Advises the Council on management and staffing of the Organization, including nomination of senior staff
    • ~4 sessions per year
    • Members are appointed by the Council on recommendations made by the current SPC; appointments are for a period of three years, renewable once, and are on the basis of “scientific eminence” in the field of physics
    • Committee includes scientists from Member States and Observer States: three from US (including current SPC chair), two from Japan
  • Finance Committee: advises Council on the financial management of CERN
    • Deals with all issues relating to financial contributions by Member States
    • Monitors and makes recommendations to the Council on CERN’s budget, pension fund, strategic plans, etc.
    • Composed of representatives from national administrations 
    • Meets five times per year
      • In June of each year, the Committee meets to discuss the budget and expenditures and make recommendations to the Council
      • In the second half of the year, the Finance Committee advises the Council on cost variations and the scale of Member contributions
  • Staff: 2,500 engineers and technicians who design, construct, and maintain accelerators and other research equipment
    • This category comprises most of the permanent labor force of CERN
  • Scientists: in 2021, 11,175 scientists from around the world used CERN facilities to conduct fundamental physics research
    • 6,642 from Member States; 1,757 from the US
    • Scientists apply for access to CERN facilities by submitting an experiment proposal to the CERN Research Board

Notable Programs (that seem AI-relevant)

  • CERN Safety Rules: Covers all activities in CERN labs; can take three forms
    • Safety Regulations: rules related to health and safety for operating accelerators, environmental protection from toxic waste or chemicals, etc.
      • Example - Chemical Agents: defines safety requirements for the protection of persons from health and safety risks arising from hazardous chemical agents used in CERN activities or facilities
        • Hazard identification and risk assessment: each research group must identify its activities that involve hazardous chemicals and complete a risk assessment for each of these activities noting the hazardous properties of the chemical, the level and duration of exposure for scientists, and any preventative measures that can be taken to mitigate risk
        • Exposure monitoring: research groups must monitor the exposure levels for all individuals working with hazardous chemicals and submit annual reports to CERN
      • Other Safety Regulations concern mechanical equipment, safety incident management, etc.
    • General Safety Instructions: how to implement Safety Regulations in general fields of activity or for general types of equipment
      • Example - Monitoring of exposure to hazardous chemical agents: describes how to complete the exposure monitoring requirement in the above Chemical Agents Safety Regulation
        • Exposure monitoring is compulsory annually and after any change to activities involving hazardous chemicals at a lab
        • For each activity involving exposure to hazardous chemicals, research groups must establish a Safety File and update it with reports detailing the monitoring strategy and the results of exposure monitoring, a record of any exposure limits being exceeded with corrective actions taken, and an exposure form for each worker
        • If the results of the exposure monitoring show that an exposure limit has been exceeded for hazardous agents like wood dust, benzene, and lead, the research group must immediately stop work until measures are put in place to ensure the protection of all persons exposed
      • Other General Safety Instructions describe how to implement safety measures in explosive environments, how to operate cryogenic equipment, the use of Personal Protective Equipment, etc.
    • Specific Safety Instructions: how to implement Safety Regulations for specific events or types of equipment
      • Example - Major Safety Incident Classification, Investigation, Analysis and Follow-up: defines the principles for the classification, investigation, analysis, and follow-up of Major Safety Incidents
        • An accident can be classified as a “Major Safety Incident” based on environmental and societal impact, likelihood of recurrence, legal or reputational effects; this classification initiates a special review process for the accident
        • A Major Safety Incident must be classified by the Director-General within three working days of the event
        • Director-General must then appoint a Major Safety Incident Analysis Group (MSIAG)
        • MSIAG investigates the incident by conducting site visits, interviews, and a review of reports from first responders
        • Within 10 days of their appointment, MSIAG must submit to the Director-General a Major Safety Incident Analysis Report with possible causes of the accident and initial recommendations for next steps
        • Within five days of receiving the Analysis Report, the Director-General must convene a Major Safety Incident Board (MSIB) to review the Analysis Report, request more information if necessary, and produce final conclusions and recommendations
      • Other Special Safety Instructions: fire safety and radiation resistance requirements for electrical cables, handling of pressure vessels, safety requirements for vacuum chambers, etc.
  • Large Hadron Collider (LHC): most powerful particle accelerator in the world
    • LHC safety: Reviewed by LHC Safety Study Group (LSAG), a panel of scientists commissioned by CERN (six scientists in first study, five in second), in 2003 and 2008, with an addendum added in 2011
      • 2008 report seriously considered fears of catastrophic risks from cosmic rays, creation of black holes, hypothetical strange matter and magnetic monopoles, runaway fusion reactions, etc. brought about by LHC operation
      • LSAG concluded both times LHC collisions “present no danger”
      • Reports have been reviewed and endorsed by the CERN Council and Scientific Policy Committee, and by leading experts from CERN Member and Observer States
      • Scientists have also conducted their own independent studies on the LHC—most recently a study of black hole risks in 2018, which once again showed that LHC is safe
  • Worldwide LHC Computing Grid: provides global computing resources for the storage, distribution, and analysis of data generated by the LHC
    • Combines 1.4 million computer cores and 1.5 exabytes of storage from over 170 sites in 42 countries
    • Enables more than 12,000 physicists around the world to access near real-time LHC data
No comments on this post yet.
Be the first to respond.
More from SWK
Curated and popular this week
Relevant opportunities