Synchrotron Sorrow

The Australian synchrotron is in big trouble. It’s funding comes to an end next year, and the state government is considering not renewing it. Just when it looks like Australian science may have dodged the bullet of funding cuts (although lets wait for the budget before we get too confident) another disaster may be lurking.

Before I get to the background I should note that Keith Nugent has recently taken over as head of the synchrotron. Keith not only features in my book, he launched it, and had some very nice things to say, so I might be a little biased.

Synchrotrons accelerate particles in a magnetic and electric field so as to produce powerful X-Ray light. This can be used for many scientific research applications. There are about 30 synchrotrons in the world, and collectively they are crucial for vast areas of research.

For a long time there was pressure for the building on an Australian synchrotron. There’s a certain appropriateness in this, since the idea was first suggested by an Australian, Marcus Oliphant. The foundations of much of the research done with X-Ray light was laid down by the William Henry and William Lawrence Bragg, Australia’s first Noble prize winners. However, there were more pressing reasons than nostalgia. The cost of sending scientists half way round the world to buy time an hour or two on other synchrotrons was ridiculous. Moreover, many researchers had horror stories of having priceless crystals destroyed by bad handling on international flights, or even seized by customs.

When the federal government finally decided to build an Australian facility they naturally started a process to investigate the most appropriate site. However, the Victorian government gazummped them, announcing they were building a synchrotron at Clayton. This may well have been the best site, but understandably the federal government were not impressed at having their process by-passed and ended up putting in less money than they probably would have otherwise.

Bracks and Brumby however, saw the synchrotron as one of their greatest prides and put in enough to get it off (or should that be into) the ground. Indeed, at one point they decided to upgrade the facility to 30 beamlines – the individual points at which the X-Rays are accessed for research.

From the moment the synchrotron was planned there was some rumbling that the demand in Australia did not justify building such a facility. Given the parlous state of Australian (and New Zealand) science funding it was questioned whether so much should go to one facility, important as it is. The dangers became greater with the decision to expand, which seems to have been yet another example of the Bracks/Brumby obsession with massive projects, rather than having a sound scientific or economic basis. At the time I received an excited state government media release about the decision, but I couldn’t get a straight answer on how the facility was going to justify the extra expense, except that there would be potential for more beamlines¬† in the distant future if the demand was there. At the moment only nine beamlines have been commissioned.

In 2009 the facility was wracked by conflict between the board of management and the director, who the board sacked. The scientific advisory committee were aligned with the director. I’ve no inside knowledge, but it looked from the outside as if the board were in the wrong, with everyone who really knew anything lined up against them.

All that aside however, the crucial question is whether the synchrotron will stay open. It may well be that we’ve got a facility that is larger than it should be and has a history of bad management, but the simple fact is that Australian science needs a synchrotron. We can’t go back to having some of our best minds sitting in airports bleary with lack of sleep for the sake of some research they could do in with a quick trip down to Clayton (Monash researchers literally walk across the road). It’s not as though the machine has any value for anything else, although I can imagine there are a few roller derby players who’d find it a perfect rink. We’re not going to get back the sunk costs of building the thing, and while it’s expensive to operate, the value of the research coming out – particularly for medical is higher.

It’s particularly interesting to contrast the position of the synchrotron with another of Bracks and Brumby’s gigantic pet projects; the desalination plant. Both served an essential purpose, but one that some thought could have been achieved more cheaply in other ways. In both cases they were bigger than the needed to be (although the synchrotron is only a little bigger, while the desal plant is at least four times too big). However, the cost of building and operating the synchrotron is about a twentieth of the desal plant. (That’s just financially – I’m not aware of any serious environmental problems resulting from the synchrotron, other than it’s substantial energy consumption. You can’t say that about the desal plant). Yet Baillieu has decided to go ahead with the desal contract, despite the fact that the recent rains have meant it will be a long time, if ever before we get any value out of it

On the other hand, the synchrotron is producing research that is as important for Australia’s future as water every day. Yet it’s future remains uncertain. Sadly, I’m not surprised.

Update: A friend emailed me about this article arguing that upgrading the synchrotron to be able to run 30 beamlines was a rare case of forward planning. You can’t add more after it is operational, so best to have some spare beforehand. In principal I agree, but the question is how many extra to have.

We’ve commissioned nine, and there are plans for a few more if money can be found. If it keeps running gradually more will be added, but it will be decades, at the very least, before we get past the original 24. No facility will last forever, so it’s a question of whether we’ll get to use them before we’re looking to replace the place. Having a larger facility increases running costs, but I’m not sure if it does so significantly. On the other hand, the extra size certainly increased the cost of building the machine, and right about now it would have been useful if that money had been saved and ploughed into gauranteeing funding for an extra couple of years. Still, this is quibbling, partly for the purpose of making the comparison with the desal plant – compared to the decision to overengineer that monstrosity any issues with the extra half dozen beamlines are genuinely trivial.

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About Stephen Luntz

I am a science journalist, specialising in Australian and New Zealand research across all fields of science. My book, Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats: A Field Guide to Australian Scientists is out now through CSIRO Publishing. I am also a professional returning officer for non-government organisations. I'm very politically active, but generally try to restrict this blog to scientific matters.
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3 Responses to Synchrotron Sorrow

  1. Scott Fraser says:

    Great analysis Stephen. I spent a large part of my PhD at the Synchrotron and recently tried to get employed there as well. The Synchrotron has so much potential and adds so much impact to the Science we do here in Australia.

    Sadly I think this comes back to bad management from the Victorian Government who, as you rightly put it, have commissioned a few projects unnecessarily or way over budget recently. Myki, the murray/darling pipeline to Ballarat, the desal plant and, the icing on the cake, the Melbourne Grand Prix. Some of these can be pseudo-justified but some, if it just comes down to numbers, are well and truly a “walking loss”.

    One thing this post doesn’t mention and I feel should, for clarity and those not familiar with the pretext of why we needed this facility, is that the Synchrotron was predicted to make a loss for at least the first 20 years. The large reason for the “at least” tab is that to get drugs/therapies approved and materials commercialised is a long and drawn out process in and of itself AFTER the discovery has been made. So really, the Synchrotron is not even in a position to be judged as yet, let alone scrutinised as this was outlined when the Synchrotron was commissioned.

    With knowledge, and the examples I gave earlier, it does make you wonder what Government considers a “good investment” as all of the examples, and the Synchrotron as well, are investments in the states future.

  2. Thanks. I knew there was no expectation of a profit in the near future, but if I had seen the 20 year figure quoted I’d forgotten it.

    Clearly something like this needs to be founded with a lot more than five years funding. I was criticized on the facebook page of the synchrotron on the basis that the expansion to 30 beamlines had been recommended by leading researchers. However, I do wonder whether those people understood the funding environment in which the decision was made – if the choice had been between guaranteeing funding for an extra few years and the extra beamlines I think the decision might have been different.

    However, at this point that’s not on the table, the choice is between the synchrotron we have and no synchrotron at all, and we need to save it. The embarrassment of having a state of the art machine shut down while researchers traipse across the world to conduct their studies is too great to contemplate.

  3. Pingback: Good News On The Synchrotron | Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats

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