Lab gloom mars hi-tech opening

May 10, 2002

Cambridge University celebrated a milestone in its ten-year masterplan for a 66-hectare science and technology complex to the west of Cambridge last week when it officially opened its multimillion-pound computer laboratory.

But hopes that the complex would cement Cambridge's status as an international high-tech beacon were dealt a blow with confirmation that the AT&T telecommunications laboratory was to close because of corporate cost-cutting. Marconi has already announced it is pulling out of a deal to build a multimillion-pound research facility in the area.

The university, however, maintained a brave face at the opening of the William H. Gates Building, which houses the computer lab. David Secher, director of research, said that Cambridge was "one of the most exciting technology centres in Europe" with the university at its heart.

The "Cambridge phenomenon" had stimulated the growth of high-tech companies and academic entrepreneurs, combining scholarly excellence with real-world practical experience, he said.

The AT&T laboratory was one of the flagships of this phenomenon. Starting life in 1987 as the Olivetti Research Laboratory, the lab was closely linked to the university's engineering department and housed 50 scientists who will now be dispersed. It invented the broad-band phone and spun off numerous businesses, making millionaires out of almost 100 people who worked there.

Vice-chancellor Sir Alec Broers said the west Cambridge development was "essential for the university to maintain its position as one of the world's top academic institutions".

The university plans to shift most of its science and technology departments there, leaving arts and humanities in the ancient buildings in the congested city centre. Sir Alec said the development would "stimulate commercial research opportunities and enhance Cambridge's position as a major centre for technological research and development.

"You cannot carry out international competitive research without proper investment and the best equipment and facilities. The British science industrial base depends on the important research work that universities conduct, and we ignore its developments at the whole country's peril."

The university hopes that in the long term the west Cambridge site will be enhanced by affordable housing and student accommodation. University planning chief Lindsay Dane said this development was essential to ease over-crowding and housing problems in central Cambridge and to provide accommodation for hundreds of additional students in the next decade or so.

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