In the popular imaginaries of Research Infrastructures, the ‘good old CERN’ is often seen as the prime example of European Research Infrastructures. Created in the post-World War II and emerging Cold War context of the 1950s, the European Organization of Nuclear Research (CERN) has developed in a highly-regarded success story of international cooperation, scientific discoveries such as Higgs boson experiments and inventions of broad relevance like the World Wide Web. Successful and well-known as it is, is the shining star of CERN still helpful in understanding research infrastructures in the 21st century?

During the first 20 years of the 21st century, Research Infrastructures in Europe have undergone major organizational, technological and political changes. In my recent chapter ‘Ever-Changing Big Science and Research Infrastructures in Europe: Evolving European Union Policy’ published in the edited book ‘Big Science and Research Infrastructures in Europe’, I examine some of these ongoing transformations.

Ecosystem of Research Infrastructures

Politically, the focus has shifted from individual Research Infrastructures towards a coordinated approach of developing overall European Research Infrastructure ecosystem and landscape focusing on complementarities and synergies between different Research Infrastructures. If in the second half of the 20th century, Research Infrastructures such as CERN emerged largely as a result of ad hoc collaboration among a number of national governments, then since the launch of the European Research Area initiative in 2000 attempts have been made to develop a more coordinated European approach. Since 2002, the European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures (ESFRI) has been responsible for developing long-term vision for a sustainable Research Infrastructure ecosystem in Europe. In its recent White Paper, the ESFRI presents a rich landscape of over 50 European Research Infrastructures and its future aims to optimise this landscape including tackling new societal challenges and contributing to the Sustainable Development Goals.

From Projects to Infrastructures

Major changes for Research Infrastructures are not limited to the political context. Technologies are changing as well. If traditional Research Infrastructures such as CERN were large-scale research facilities, then advances in digital technologies and availability of data enable new types of distributed e-infrastructures. The increased role that data sharing plays in many research fields presents new challenges to the emerging ecosystem of Research Infrastructures. Often data are collected and shared within a fixed-term research projects, which constitute a growing share of science funding today. This presents a major challenge: what happens to data when fixed-term research project is over? Which are stable and long-lasting organizations that can store and provide access to data over a longer term? Universities? Libraries?

In Europe today, a sustainable Research Infrastructure is one organizational form for collecting and sharing data over a long-term. Accordingly, fixed-term research projects collecting and sharing data and digital research tools attempt to become sustainable Research Infrastructures to ensure that data collected during a funded project are available afterwards. Does the ecosystem of European Research Infrastructures have the capacity and resources to turn all or many data collection and integration projects into sustainable Research Infrastructures? Which projects should be prioritised? And what are alternatives for sharing data and digital research tools in a sustainable manner? Moreover, what lessons can be learnt from those research projects that have become Research Infrastructures? Are they stable, well-resourced and widely-used or rather fragile, under-utilized and still to a considerable extent dependent on a fixed-term competitive project funding?

Social Function of Research Infrastructures

Changing political, scientific and technological context of Research Infrastructures presents new types of questions. According to the current EU policy, Research Infrastructures are expected to contribute to achieving societal goals such as Grand societal challenges and the Sustainable Development Goals. Novel types of infrastructures involving digital research and personal data create new vulnerabilities related to questions such as security and privacy. This highlights the importance of societal and ethical aspects of Research Infrastructures.

Recently, I presented some initial ideas on how to address these topics in my talk ‘Building Responsible Research and Innovation Into Transnational Research Infrastructures: Opportunities and Challenges’ at the 4S/EASST conference. This week, together with colleagues, we will talk about the dual use issues in research infrastructures at the international workshop ‘Making Europe Through Infrastructures of In/Security’. It is still possible to register for the keynote panel of this workshop on the 12th November. Further issues that need to be examined include: What kind of imaginaries shape and drive creation and maintenance of Research Infrastructures in contemporary Europe? What role do transdisciplinary collaborations play in co-creating Research Infrastructures? Are societal relevance and scientific excellence of Research Infrastructures complementary or in tension with each other?


Ulnicane, I. (2020) ‘Ever-Changing Big Science and Research Infrastructures: Evolving European Union Policy’, in K.Cramer and O.Hallonsten (eds) Big Science and Research Infrastructures in Europe. Edward Elgar, pp.76-100.

Author Profile

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *