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Synchrotron delays ‘put at risk’ Europe's leading role

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As Switzerland was last week giving its final approval to a planned 2.1-GeV Swiss Light Source, British and French scientists repeated calls for their respective governments to approve swiftly construction of proposed national synchrotron radiation sources in the two countries.

Scientists meeting at a two-day international conference in Paris on the use of synchrotron radiation in biology and medicine united behind a simple take-home message: modern synchrotron facilities are not a luxury, but an essential resource in modern biology. They warned that further delays may risk Europe losing its lead over Japan and the United States in this area.

British research administrators are scrutinizing future budgets to discover how to pay for a proposed 3-GeV synchrotron machine, Diamond. Their French colleagues face a different frustration: although the money has been promised by public funding agencies the government appears reluctant to give its approval to the 2.15-GeV Soleil, in particular because of political difficulties over the choice of a site.

There is broad consensus among researchers on the need for new synchrotrons in Europe. At the Paris meeting, those voicing support included Paul Williams, chairman and chief executive of the UK Central Laboratory of the Research Councils, Catherine Bréchignac, director-general of the French Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), Yannick d'Escatha, director-general of the French Atomic Energy Commission (CEA), and Stephen Bieri, chief executive officer of the Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology.

The four organizations signed an agreement to cooperate in the design of one another's machines, swapping technical expertise, sharing staff and cutting costs through economies of scale. A permanent board, with two people from each country, will coordinate user needs and wider aspects of synchrotron research among the three countries.

Diamond, which would cost £140 million (US$237 million) over five years, would replace the existing Synchrotron Radiation Source (SRS) at Daresbury in Cheshire. The Wellcome Trust has recently pledged £10 million to its costs (see Nature 398, 318; 1997). But a recent upgrade of the SRS has bought time for researchers, ensuring that the facility will remain “in good shape for another five years”, says David Norman, director of the SRS.

The situation is more critical in France, where the government has “suspended” approval of Soleil, intended to replace the Lure facilities (800 MeV and 1.85 GeV) in Paris at an estimated cost of FFr1 billion (US$174 million). Both current facilities are already outperformed by machines elsewhere, and are poorly geared to meet the need for bright sources of soft X-rays and ultraviolet radiation spectra by biology applications, the area of synchrotron use where demand is greatest.

The French government was about to approve Soleil when the process was interrupted by the snap general election in June. Although the new government has increased spending on research, priority has been given to creating jobs. Funding for existing big science facilities has been cut, and the government is reluctant to make new large commitments.

Choosing a site for Soleil from among the many regions competing for the jobs and investment will inevitably cause discontent among the losers, say observers. They suggest that the government may choose to postpone the disappointment until after next year's regional elections.

Some researchers also claim the government has uncritically lumped Soleil with other ‘big science’ facilities. Dino Moras, a researcher at CNRS's Laboratory of Structural Biology in Strasbourg, argues that synchrotrons are “not big equipment used by a few, but a shared tool used by many”.

Many at the meeting said that access to first-class national machines would be critical if Europe was to be competitive in many areas of biology, such as genome research. With both Britain and France each having user communities of around 2,500, the political response is out of touch with the “huge demand” in the scientific community, says one French scientist, who describes approving Soleil as an “absolute urgency”.

Resentment at the lack of a French government decision is particularly strong, given that bidding regions have already agreed to meet half the costs from their own budgets, while CNRS and CEA have agreed to pay two-thirds and one-third of the remainder respectively. With the financing structure in place, the government's reluctance to give the project the green light “seems crazy”, says Moras.

Meanwhile, staff at Lure are concerned that Soleil might not go to the Saclay site near Paris being proposed by the Paris region. If the facility were to go elsewhere, French synchrotron research would be set back by “years”, says Roger Fourme, a researcher at the University of Paris-Sud at Orsay, and head of Lure's department of biology/biophysics.

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Butler, D. Synchrotron delays ‘put at risk’ Europe's leading role. Nature 390, 212 (1997). https://doi.org/10.1038/36683

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