The future of the Large Hadron Collider, the giant particle physics laboratory being built at Cern in Geneva, hung in the balance yesterday.
Germany's recent non-negotiable demand for a cut of 8.5 per cent in its annual subscription to the programme threatens to put back the completion date beyond 2005. This delay would in turn jeopardise the Pounds 320 million of support promised by United States, which is not a member of Cern.
Cern's 19 member states met yesterday to thrash out an agreement that could ensure that the LHC project is completed on schedule for 2005.
Sources say that this completion date is already a year later than the US would like and that the Americans would be "very reluctant" to take part in the project if it slipped any further.
Cern sources fear that Japan, which has committed Pounds 36 million and is considering offering another Pounds 36 million, might also pull out if the LHC was delayed.
The project promises to provide insights into the creation and behaviour of matter in the very early universe. Its annual budget totals around Pounds 500 million.
Officials in Geneva have already informed members that some savings, totalling 4 per cent of the annual budget, have been made over the last two years because of low Swiss inflation and a strong Swiss franc.
They now estimate they can make a further saving of 1 per cent per annum on the budget through efficiency gains.
Various strategies for coping with the 3.5 per cent shortfall in Cern income were to be discussed yesterday.
One possibility is for Cern to take out a commercial loan for between Pounds 150-200 million to tide over the LHC programme for the period leading up to its completion.
Members would pay for the loan during the tail of the project when Cern demands for funds for the LHC decline.
Another possibility is for members to have varying financial commitments to Cern. Some would pay more up front in return for lower outlays at a later date, and vice versa.
Cern members might also consider a mixture of the two solutions.