French Physicists Protest Synchrotron Plan

19 March 2001 7:00 pm

Solidarity forever. Last year, protesters marched in the streets in support of SOLEIL and other science projects (above). Now physicists are riled that the government plans to privatize the center.

French scientists last week shut down two x-ray synchrotrons for 5 days in protest over plans to privatize another x-ray synchrotron soon to be constructed near Paris. Some of the protesting researchers are destined to work at the SOLEIL synchrotron, whose beamlines will be used to solve protein structures and for materials science research. The scientists worry that working for a private entity would be a dead-end for their careers.

After 10 years of lobbying by France's x-ray community (including an earlier work shutdown by some of the same physicists (ScienceNOW, 7 September 1999), the government last September finally gave a green light to the $172 million facility. From the outset, SOLEIL's architects--the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) and the Commissariat à l'Energie Atomique (CEA) in Saclay--stated that the laboratory would be operated as a private nonprofit. Such a legal status would make it easier for other European partners to join SOLEIL as they could bypass the CNRS and CEA bureaucracies and negotiate directly with the lab, says a CNRS spokesperson.

But SOLEIL's legal status would crimp the ability of staff to get jobs in publicly funded research labs, argue scientists at LURE, the current x-ray laboratory at Saclay, whose staff is expected to be transferred to SOLEIL when it's up and running in 2006. "Some fear that they will not be able to return to a research area that they would like to engage in," says LURE physicist Amina Taleb.

France's Science Ministry had promised an open discussion last fall of SOLEIL's legal status, but this never took place, says former LURE director Robert Comès. Angry at being ignored, approximately 100 scientists on 12 March pulled the plugs on the SUPER-ACCO and DCI machines, delaying experiments until 19 March. They also delivered a petition to the CNRS directorate in Paris last week demanding that SOLEIL become a "mixed research unit," a legal status enabling it to house staff researchers from the universities and from the CNRS. "To us it is important that a research tool is not placed outside the research community," says LURE researcher Pierre Lebasque, who contends that fewer scientists would have access to a privately operated synchrotron.

The CNRS appears to be warming to that position: According to Lebasque, the agency is now thinking of creating a mixed research unit alongside a private enterprise to manage SOLEIL's finances. "We think the probability for this solution is higher than that of the government backtracking from its position," he says.

Related sites

Announcement by the French science minister of plans for SOLEIL
CEA's home page
CNRS's home page

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