CERN Accelerating science

Interview with Mr Bernard Dormy, Chair of TREF, in November 2017

Mr Bernard Dormy finished his term of office as the Chair of the Tripartite Employment Conditions Forum (TREF) (see Echo No. 242) at the end of 2017.

On this occasion, the Staff Association met with him to discuss CERN and its personnel and, amongst other things, the model for concertation.

Moreover, the Staff Association would like to take this opportunity to applaud Mr Dormy for the commitment he has shown since 2003, when he first started at TREF as a delegate of France. It is easy to believe that Mr Dormy found his mandate in this Forum particularly pleasing, since he served as the Vice-Chair of TREF from 2007 to 2011, and then as the Chairman from 2012 to 2017.

During his chairmanship, Mr Dormy always made sure that the concertation took place under the best possible conditions, in a constructive manner and in a spirit of mutual respect. Furthermore, he placed great emphasis on diversity at CERN: there was not a single TREF meeting without an update on diversity issues and progress made in this area.

Before moving on to questions and answers, the Staff Association would like to thank Mr Dormy for his profound respect for the CERN personnel, which he has expressed to us on numerous occasions. In turn, we would like to extend to him our most respectful and heartfelt greetings.

Mr Dormy, what were your first contacts with CERN, and what do you remember of the experience?

I joined the delegation of France for TREF at CERN fifteen years ago and the Finance Committee a few years later. Nonetheless, my first contact with CERN dates back much further. Back in high school, my physics teacher, who was particularly skilled at awakening interest in basic research, encouraged us to visit CERN if we ever went to Geneva. Unfortunately, when the time came, I was not able to do it and had to settle for a postcard picked up downtown. As for my vocation, despite a certain taste for science, I later went on to study in the business administration school HEC (École des Hautes Études Commerciales) and the French national school of administration ENA (École Nationale d'Administration).

My next contact with CERN dates back to the 80’s. The Director of Humanities at CNRS (French National Centre for Scientific Research), whose deputy I was at the time, related a discussion he had once witnessed with a famous physicist during a council meeting at the CNRS:

  • Mr N., with a mere crumb of your accelerators, I can breathe life into all of the laboratories of my section.
  • Mr P., I was raised well and I never drop crumbs.

As entertaining as it may be, I was later on fortunate to find more open minds in the scientists with whom I worked, even if they were users of very large instruments such as CERN.

Finally, my third contact was an echo of a discussion between a minister, who seemed only interested in applied research (if even possible in the industry), and another great physicist. To the question "Minister, do you know who invented the Web?” he replied "Bill Gates, of course." What more to give you the desire to finally discover the cradle of the Web from the inside!

What have you “discovered” at CERN?

A concrete discovery I made at CERN within TREF was that of multilateralism. It is generally described as the art of compromise between different positions, which is a bit of an oversimplification because, as I have witnessed in TREF or the Finance Committee, a unanimous agreement can often be found without necessarily having to build a median position acceptable to all parties. Still, for me, multilateralism means above all discovering that the ways of thinking and especially expressing ourselves can vary quite a bit from one State to another, even if they share the same vision of the world.

At times, certain wording may seem quite blunt for some, yet appear unclear and convoluted to others. In the same way, certain things that are nowadays integrated into everyday behaviour in some countries, as for instance the position of women in society, still require a proactive policy in others. That is what makes chairing TREF exciting and, I sincerely believe, quickly leads to experiencing diversity more as an enrichment than a constraint.

How would you define concertation at CERN?

The consultation of personnel in large public or private organisations takes, or has taken, a wide variety of forms across the various Member States of CERN, ranging from a simple collection of opinions, often with limited influence on the final decision, all the way to co-management.

For me, the concertation as practiced at CERN seems to strike a balance between these two extremes. In sum, I would gladly describe it as the search for a common position between the Staff Association, the CERN Management, and the Member States, all of whom are loyally informed beforehand of the various aspects of each issue and given the opportunity to confront their positions with that of other parties. Just as the Standing Concertation Committee (SCC), TREF plays a significant role in this process.

During my first sessions as a delegate at TREF, I was struck by the diversity of professional backgrounds of delegates, who, beyond their individual specialties, did not all share the same basis of knowledge. I myself had arrived in a world where there was plenty to discover, armed only with memories of international civil service law I had learned at university and, I do hope, some common sense. However, sharing the same pool of information prior to debates is crucial to the proper functioning of TREF. That is why we decided with Jean-Marc Saint-Viteux to put together a presentation of CERN and its specific environment (especially economic), the different working methods and past decisions of TREF, as well as the legal conditions of the concertation process, especially during five-yearly review of remuneration and employment conditions. For six years, this background information has been available to all new delegates of the Member States for the purpose of ensuring that everyone shares the same level of basic information before the TREF sessions.

How would you compare the concertation at CERN with the processes in place in other organisations?

It may be tempting to make comparisons, especially for someone who, like me, has had the chance to chair the administrative and financial committees of two other major research infrastructures currently being built in Darmstadt and Lund. Yet, speaking from experience, I think it is better to restrain oneself.

CERN is an international organisation, and its Council determines the law applicable to its personnel, under the supervision of the international court. In Germany and in Sweden, I have come across organisations, where the personnel is governed by national collective agreements. The role of consultative bodies with personnel representatives is thus limited to the enforcement of rules and excludes their elaboration. Of course, these bodies are linked to the council and the finance committee, but they are, by nature, more limited than those in place at CERN.

In this regard, CERN has its particularities, such as every international organisation. But CERN itself is a unique international organisation, the oldest of large international scientific infrastructures in operation today. This kind of an organisational culture is not found elsewhere, especially with this level of development. It is not every day that one comes across a place where the personnel readily identify themselves as “cernois” rather than French, German, Polish... Just as our neighbours in the canton of Vaud, the CERN people could say, “there’s no one like us”.

What are your thoughts about the CERN personnel and the work carried out by the Staff Association?

It may sound trite to say that CERN, and the considerable investments that have been and will be made to it, would be nothing without the women and men who compose it. However, it is sometimes useful to repeat these banalities, because delegates to the many CERN bodies constantly have to balance between the demands of managing budgets allocated by various Member States, and the requirements of a personnel policy, in the interest of attracting the best and providing them with good employment conditions.

In this context, I would like to answer the question “What is the purpose of the Staff Association?” with a simple phrase: its purpose is to serve the members of the personnel. One concrete example of these services, which contribute to the attractiveness of CERN, is that, upon entering the campus, immediately on the right, there is a nursery and a kindergarten, which are managed by the Staff Association. Another example: with its mere presence at TREF, the Staff Association serves to remind everyone that the personnel should not be regarded as a simple “cost”, and that it is important to remember that there are real men and real women behind the generic term “personnel”.

From your point of view, what is the future of CERN?

I am tempted to answer with the witty remark attributed to Niels Bohr (and taken up by Pierre Dac), “In science, it’s difficult to make predictions, especially about the future.” Who could have predicted that the founding principles of the Web, designed to facilitate common access to data from research laboratories, would lead to such profound changes in our contemporary societies? Let us be modest and trust research, including basic research, which, to use the vocabulary of economists, is sort of like the venture capital of our States.

However, this should not stop us from expressing our hopes and aspirations. With regard to the personnel, the members of TREF know how much I wish to see the role of women in science develop, particularly within large research infrastructures. It took some 60 years to see a woman as the Director-General of CERN, more than 20 years to see a woman to chair TREF, and almost as long to see a woman in the delegation of the Staff Association.

The fact that we highlight these nominations shows that we consider these events to be out of the ordinary. In order to turn these into the regular news of tomorrow, a change in the mind-set is required. I am convinced that this will not be obtained by coercion, and I fully agree with CERN rejecting the so-called positive discrimination policies, which ultimately work against those they wish to help. On the contrary, I think that continuing education can encourage us all to consider it normal to choose our collaborators solely based on their competence. For this reason, I requested that a report on the place of women in the Organization and, more broadly, the diversity policy, be presented in each TREF meeting. Finally, allow me to reflect back on my initial remarks: this form of diversity is also a chance for us all – not a constraint.

The French version of this article was published in Echo No. 283.