Published online 24 August 2010 | Nature 466, 1028-1029 (2010) | doi:10.1038/4661028a

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Big science feels the pinch in Europe

Financial hard times in member states are fuelling calls for budget savings across the board.

Researchers at CERN have been asked to hunt high and low for budget cuts.C. MARCELLONI/M. BRICE/CERN

Long insulated by multi-year budgets and treaties, Europe's multinational research organizations and the glittering scientific projects they fund are finally feeling the financial pain of their member states. This week, representatives from the 20 nations involved in CERN, Europe's particle-physics laboratory near Geneva, Switzerland, meet to discuss budget cuts for the laboratory over the next five years. In the next few months, Nature has learned, other organizations are facing decisions on whether to delay new projects, put upgrades on hold or make cuts in an attempt to appease their struggling member states.

“We are all very worried about the financial situation.”


"We are all very worried about the financial situation," says Francesco Sette, director of the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) in Grenoble, France.

For decades, the nations of Europe have built impressive scientific facilities through cooperation. Money from across the continent has gone to construct the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the world's most powerful particle accelerator, which is located at CERN. Similar efforts have created the world-class European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg, Germany, a series of massive telescopes in the Chilean desert and spacecraft to observe Earth and beyond.

Extraordinary measures

In the European fashion, financing for these projects is agreed through painstaking, multi­lateral negotiations. Most organizations are overseen by independent councils composed of scientists and bureaucrats from the member governments. Budget negotiations can be long, but usually result in stable funding that stretches years into the future (see 'Steady as they go?'). The organizations operate under treaties that ensure committed funding is rarely pulled, providing an extra level of security.

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At CERN, the budget process often generates debate. But as the organization planned its latest five-year budget this spring, it met un­usually strong resistance from member states, notably the United Kingdom. As a result, the CERN council rejected the five-year budget and asked the laboratory to come up with a plan to save money. The new strategy will be discussed at an extraordinary meeting of the organization's financial council on 25 August and includes plans to suspend activities at CERN's smaller accelerators during a 2012 shutdown of the LHC, delay renovating the lab's ageing buildings, and slow down development of the Compact Linear Collider advanced accelerator technology.

"CERN is in some sense a bellwether," says John Womersley, director of science programmes at the UK Science and Technology Facilities Council, which oversees many of Britain's subscriptions to international research bodies. Britain's newly elected coalition government is planning deep cuts in public spending to cope with a growing budget deficit, and Womersley says that his council is facing a difficult choice: fund projects abroad or support scientists at home. In the coming months, as more of Europe's treaty organizations bring budgets up for review, Womersley says that Britain will be calling for tough savings across the board.

The United Kingdom is usually the third-largest contributor to cooperative efforts, behind France and Germany, and its hard line is creating difficulties. At the synchrotron facility in Grenoble, Sette says that the British delegation to the governing council has asked it to outline the consequences of three scenarios: a flat budget, a 10% cut and a budget for minimal operations. The timing couldn't be worse for the ESRF, which is just embarking on a seven-year, €100-million (US$127-million) upgrade to its facilities. "We are today at a very critical stage," he says. "A major cut would imply a complete rethinking of the medium- and long-term strategy for the lab."

Britain is not the only European state with financial difficulties. Italy and Spain, among others, are also facing domestic budget crises that are causing trouble. Iain Mattaj, director of the EMBL, says that several countries unexpectedly announced in June that they might have trouble paying their dues in the coming year. Mattaj declined to name which nations were struggling.

"The situation is not easy for anyone," says Franco Bonacina, a spokesperson for the European Space Agency in Paris. As a result of the downturn, the agency has decided to put its plans for new missions largely on hold. Fresh projects are normally agreed during triennial meetings of research ministers, but there will be no meeting in 2011. Instead, the agency hopes that a lower-key delegation can approve two critical starts — an extension to the International Space Station programme until 2020, and funding to develop the next generation of the Ariane 5 rocket.

A stimulating solution

Not all plans for the future are on hold, however. Budget cuts have "never been something that's been asked of us," says Colin Carlile, director of the European Spallation Source, a new neutron-scattering facility to be located in Lund, Sweden. Carlile says that the Scandinavian member states who originally backed the Lund site have so far remained committed, as have other partners, including Spain. At present, the €1.5-billion facility is still on track to begin construction in 2013, he says, noting that the distant start date has insulated his group somewhat from the current financial problems.

Tim de Zeeuw, director-general of the European Southern Observatory, headquartered in Garching, Germany, says that in the next financial year he plans to ask for funds to start developing the European Extremely Large Telescope, a 42-metre-diameter behemoth. De Zeeuw points out that much of the telescope's €1-billion budget will go to high-tech companies in Europe, which will design its optics and instrumentation. "If we want to stimulate our economy, this is a fine way of doing it," he says.

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Womersley says that Britain hopes to participate in the new telescope, although the fiscal realities the country now faces may prove to be an obstacle. More generally, he hopes that Europe's patchwork of international partnerships will be able to negotiate the crisis. "We certainly don't want to see long-term damage to the future prospects of these organizations," he says. 

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  • #60958

    Why are they trying to build a black hole? I think that it's a government program to dispose of trash, while others think that it's a way for the pale-white people working in the lab all day to avoid getting irradiated by sunlight when they walk outside.

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