France this week decided to construct the proposed third generation synchrotron, Soleil — a decision a decade in the making. Paris beat Lille in the bid to host the FFr1.65 billion (US$218 million) facility. Construction will begin in autumn 2001 and be completed in 2005.
Never in France has a decision over a large science facility been so politically controversial. Three years ago it seemed that Soleil was on the brink of approval from prime minister Alain Juppé's government, and would be sited in Bordeaux, where he was mayor.
Then the government was beaten by the Socialists in a snap election. Last August, research minister Claude Allègre abandoned Soleil, deciding instead to contribute to the planned synchrotron Diamond outside Oxford, England — provoking strong protests from French scientists. But Roger-Gérard Schwarzenberg reopened the case when he took over from Allègre last April.
Speaking at a press conference in Paris on Monday, Schwarzenberg said that he was convinced that Soleil was “scientifically necessary” and “financially possible”, emphasizing that, unlike other large facilities, synchrotrons serve many disciplines. Prime minister Lionel Jospin has endorsed the decision.
No fewer than 11 regions bid to host the machine, with three, including Paris, each putting cheques of FFr1.2 billion on the table. Lille said it would pay whatever it was asked to.
The contest was close until the end, and many scientists felt that the northern city of Lille would win, despite the scientific arguments for building Soleil on the Saclay Plateau near Paris — home of the LURE synchrotrons which it will replace, along with many high-technology companies and major research centres.
Lille's case was strengthened by France's keenness to decentralize science away from the Paris region. The city also had an ally in Martine Aubry, who is scheduled to quit her post as minister of social affairs and become the Socialist party's candidate for mayor of Lille.
Schwarzenberg defended the choice of Saclay by referring to the three main criteria used by the working group that advised the government on Soleil. These are the geological and general quality of the site, accessibility, and the quality of the scientific environment. Unlike Allègre, who revealed few details regarding his decisions on Soleil, Schwarzenberg made the report public.
Taking a swipe at his predecessor, who announced Soleil's abandonment during August, when France is on holiday, Schwarzenberg said he had waited until September to “to avoid any announcement in the month of August”.
The regions will provide an unprecedented proportion of Soleil's costs; the state will end up paying just FFr200 million–300 million. The regions already contribute towards the cost of the planned national university, and Schwarzenberg hinted that regional money would play an increasing role in the research budget.
The machine will have an energy range of 2.5 to 2.75 GeV, producing beams from the ultraviolet to both soft and hard X-rays. Four beamlines will be dedicated to biological research instead of the two proposed originally. Twenty-four beamlines will be built at first, increasing to 40.
Soleil will have a company's legal structure, enabling it to function continually and offer higher salaries: rules at public research organizations would not allow such flexibility.