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Oxford Wins a Crown Synchrotron Jewel

14 March 2000 7:00 pm
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In this tale of two cities, one rejoices while the other pines for what might have been. On 13 March U.K. science minister David Sainsbury announced that DIAMOND, an $880 million synchrotron project that would allow scientists to probe the atomic structure of everything from proteins to ceramics, will be set at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL) near Oxford. Losing out was the heir apparent--the Daresbury laboratory near Manchester, the site of the U.K.'s current synchrotron facility. Many scientists are denouncing the selection. "This is a crazy decision," says University of Liverpool physicist Peter Weightman, a long-time synchrotron user. "It's a triumph of finance over scientific arguments."

Soon after the British government proposed DIAMOND in 1993, financing problems put the project on hold. Five years later, a pair of strange bedfellows came to the rescue. The Wellcome Trust, Britain's largest medical charity, offered to put $184 million toward DIAMOND, and the French government pledged $56 million up front and up to $13 million a year in operating costs (Science, 6 August 1999, p. 819).

Then the political circus began. Wellcome officials lauded the benefits of DIAMOND at RAL, citing the ease of collaborations with an existing neutron source and a huge research community in the "golden triangle" formed by Oxford, Cambridge, and London. Secretary of State Stephen Byers talked up Daresbury, while his own advisers were touting RAL. Whatever tipped the scales toward RAL, the U.K. government isn't telling. "The decision was arrived at behind closed doors rather than through open discussions," contends crystallographer Paul Barnes of Birkbeck College in London. A spokesperson for the U.K.'s Department for Trade and Industry suggests the preferences of Wellcome and the French were key. "If there hadn't been anyone else involved, [Daresbury] would have been an option," he says.

To soften the blow, Sainsbury also announced a boost for science in England's Northwest, including Manchester, pledging $80 million in new science spending in the region. But the consolation prize may not halt Daresbury's decline. The government has promised to keep Daresbury's synchrotron running until 2 years after DIAMOND comes online, at least another 7 years from now. "I imagine the whole thing will shut down in the long run because the synchrotron really defines Daresbury," says Bob Cernik, Daresbury's director of physical sciences. Four of Daresbury's 270-strong synchrotron staff have left in the last few months, and Cernik fears the brain drain will accelerate.