Tuesday, 27 May 2008

All for one, one for all

Research in physics is mostly done via multi-national collaborations. Have we reached the end of the road for European nations going it alone to build the next generation large scale facilities?

Much is still being made of the budget crisis at one of the UK's leading funding council -- The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC). The reason for the cock-up still seems not to be fully known -- subscriptions to big international experiments increasing, currency fluctuations or the political wranglings of merging the previous two councils together.

In particle physics experiments are truly multi-national. If you take the case of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, near Geneva, -- due to come online after scientists have finally managed to cool 27km of magnets -- one country alone could never afford to build such a machine. Indeed, CERN was an early success of European co-operation after the second world war, people thought that it was only a token of European collaboration, but it turned out to be thriving success. The LHC, 23 years in the making and costing billions of dollars, will smash protons together at huge energies to search for theoretically predicted particles. These huge machines that operate on the TeV (approx 0.0000001 J) scale no-one alone can afford alone. So should we put all our eggs in the same basket and only have a few instruments in the world which can do similar science?

A derivation of these large particle smashers are synchrotron's that use electromagnetic radiation, such as X-rays to probe the structure of materials (rather than accelerate particles to smash each other and study the constituents). As electrons travel around 300m diameter circles (compared to the 27km circumference at the LHC) it is made to irradiate X-rays that can be used to study matter. These machines operate at a few GeV (a few orders of magnitude less than TeV) and are used in condensed-matter and biology.

The three top sources of GeV synchrotrons are in Japan, US and Europe (France). Japan and the US have gone alone and built their respective machines, while the ESRF is mostly a successful collaboration between Germany, UK and France. But the latest synchrotron to be built in Europe is the Diamond light source in Oxfordshire, less powerful (in terms of energy) than the ESRF. When much of the STFC saga broke out Diamond seemed to have been made a scapegoat for the cause of the 'black hole' at the STFC with most reports centered on its running costs which were apparently wildly underestimated (which was denied by the Diamond management).

Was Diamond a step in the wrong direction in terms of funding European science? Wouldn't it have been better to have pooled money to have a successor to the ESRF that would have made it the most intense synchrotron in the world?

There is a danger; probably due mostly to bureaucracy at European level. Take neutron science, previously Europe was the world leader with the Institute Laue Langevin in Grenoble (funded principally by UK, Germany and France) as well as with ISIS in Oxfordshire (geographically next to Diamond, funded by the UK). Plans were afoot to increase this lead with the European Spallation Source (ESS) which would be funded at European level from partner countries.

However, some countries pulled funding after most of the plans had been made. Germany went off and upgraded the FRM reactor in Munich (named FRMII), and ISIS got an upgrade (named the second target station, due to come online this summer). The plans were put on hold, and in the meantime the US had built the Spallation Neutron Source (SNS) in Tennessee, which is now the world leader in terms of neutron flux. Japan also has built a new neutron facility at J-PARC, a massive $1.5bn experiment park, which means the focus is shifting away from Europe taking the forefront of neutron science. The ESS is back on track at the moment, but many would say a few years overdue.

The ESRF and the ILL have been a great success of European collaboration, being -- at the time -- the best instruments in the world to do X-ray and neutron science respectively. Europe seems to be going back to individually funded machines such as with FRMII, ISIS second target station and Diamond. To be once again at the forefront, maybe it is time for Europe to go back and collaborate to fund the 'smaller' facilities together rather than go it alone.