Big plans unsettle small science

October 15, 2004

A government announcement of nearly £150 million funding for two "big science" projects has sparked fears that small-scale research may be left out in the cold.

Lord Sainsbury, the Science Minister, pledged £147.5 million for two British particle accelerators - the Diamond Light Source and Isis - last Friday.

These gigantic machines, which will help scientists to achieve breakthroughs in areas such as medical research, super-fast computers and clean energy technology, are both housed at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxfordshire.

But although many in the academic community have welcomed such a major injection of cash, there remains some anxiety about how much funding will be left for projects that enjoy much less of a high profile.

Anthony Scholl, Kuwait professor of number theory and algebra at Cambridge University, told The Times Higher : "There is certainly a feeling that smaller projects don't attract as much publicity and don't necessarily have the same public impact and, therefore, get left by the wayside.

"Perhaps we need to rediscover that small is beautiful."

Peter Cotgreave, director of the Save British Science campaign group, praised the Government for taking steps to put Britain on the international science map.

But he warned that major scientific advances did not always materialise in areas that happened to be trendy.

Dr Cotgreave said: "We are losing the idea of the lone scholar who isn't part of some international consortium but who actually has a brilliant idea."

However, some researchers are resigned to the inevitable tug of war between large and small projects for government funds.

Nigel Scrutton, professor of biochemistry at Leicester University, told The Times Higher : "There are some big science projects that have to go ahead, and Diamond is a great example of that. But, of course, resources are limited, so smaller projects may suffer.

"We need to have a balanced portfolio, but there has also got to be some ambition in what this country is doing."

The Diamond Light Source will be the size of five football fields and is the largest science facility to be built in the UK for nearly 30 years.

When the facility opens in 2007, it will generate infrared, ultraviolet and X-ray beams of exceptional brightness to allow scientists to probe deep into the internal structure of different materials.

Diamond has been awarded £120 million, including almost £17 million from the Wellcome Trust.

Mark Walport, director of the Wellcome Trust, said that Diamond was "the key to the future development of new drugs and treatments".

Isis will receive £.5 million to increase its capacity by equipping it with new high-tech instruments. Isis is the world's brightest pulsed "spallation" neutron source, which fires beams of atomic particles that can be used to study the internal structure of materials.

anna.fazackerley@thes.co.uk

 

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