Delivering the impossible

February 5, 1999

When other research councils cannot do something, they go to the CLRC. Martin Ince reports.

Life in a government laboratory ought to be a calming experience, but Bert Westwood runs one that is as close to the commercial cutting edge as anything in the private sector.

The 66-year-old metallurgist returned to the United Kingdom last year as chairman and chief executive of the council for the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils (CLRC), after a United States research career culminating at the Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico. Now he runs an organisation whose three laboratories, Rutherford Appleton in Oxfordshire, Daresbury in Cheshire and Chilbolton in Hampshire, have to compete for every penny of their Pounds 100 million annual income despite their public-sector status.

The CLRC gets a living by doing things for research councils and others that they could not do for themselves. For the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council it runs projects to engineer spacecraft and particle detection instruments, while for the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council it runs equipment such as massive lasers, particle generating machines including ISIS, the neutron machine at RAL, and a synchrotron machine at Daresbury used to investigate the structure of matter ranging from steel to protein. EPSRC and PPARC are the biggest customers, while other research councils and customers such as the European Commission also support CLRC.

As Dr Westwood sees it: "The research councils pay 80 per cent of our rent, and 80 per cent of the work we do is for universities in one way or another. We are the cutting edge of their research and enable academics to do things they could never do themselves."

He says: "Most of the big apparatus we run takes years to build, so one of our skills is in imagining where we need to be. That is a very interactive process which puts us at the frontier of knowledge." As proof of its interactivity, he points out that CLRC has 12,000 visitors a year despite having only about 1,700 staff.

The CLRC is now building closer links to the Medical Research Council, which up to now has concentrated its big equipment in its own research centres. The process, says Westwood, is for the MRC "to send us its dreamers" to ask for the impossible. CLRC scientists and engineers can then think about how to measure and detect the things that the medical researchers would most like to know about.

The new Diamond synchrotron machine at Daresbury, a Pounds 145 million investment part-funded by the Wellcome Trust, will be used partly for biomedical research and will tighten links with medical research.

Westwood points out that Diamond is especially exciting as a link to the world beyond the current human genome project. Once every gene has been itemised, there will be a need to characterise the proteins they express, and Diamond will make this process 1,000 times more rapid. Other uses, for a UK community of more than 2,000 researchers, will include examining glasses, polymers and metals.

Among future challenges pointed up by Westwood is the need for big magnets with fields of about 100 Tesla, five million times as powerful as the earth's magnetic field. They could be used to investigate new materials such as superconductors.

He also points out that it is not just in massive items of equipment that the CLRC's expertise lies. It also specialises in the very small. Its engineers and scientists are expert in the rapidly growing field of microdevices, which could incorporate sensors, computing power and mechanical devices on to a small piece of silicon. One place they could be useful would be as implants to repair damaged human brains.

Westwood says that this technical virtuosity is not just of use to academics. Indeed, the current science budget calls for the CLRC to get 30 per cent of its income from outside the research councils within five years. The figure is about 20 per cent already but one major target, British industry, accounts for only 3-4 per cent of CLRC's income.

Allyson Reed, CLRC commercial director, says that industry is "missing a trick" by not working more closely with the laboratories. "We can help them get more technology into their products and to get products to market faster," she says.

A campaign including visits by 200 company research directors is under way, but Reed stresses that it will not divert attention from academe. "We hope that firms might view us as a window on the academic world. The interface between firms and universities is always difficult. We are independent and can help make it work."

Reed points as example to particle physics, which "is always at the edge of technology because of the speed and difficulty of the measurements you have to make". The technology this generates, such as solid-state X-ray cameras, could find a useful home in medicine and elsewhere. The same applies to the data analysis involved in particle physics, says Westwood. "There it is essential to find one event in billions, and the detector technology and data analysis that underpins that means that we are at the cutting edge."

Like the rest of the research world, CLRC has been excited by the comprehensive spending review, under which it gained Pounds 6 million. But Westwood is even more intrigued by the possibilities of the joint infrastructure fund, even though the CLRC itself cannot apply for JIF money. Universities are eligible to apply, and he wants to persuade them that big capital equipment might be better sited at one of the CLRC labs and run for the whole research community than placed in an individual department.

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