MPs grill Sainsbury over synchrotron site

June 2, 2000

Science minister Lord Sainsbury came under heavy fire from MPs last week over the government's controversial decision to site the United Kingdom's new Pounds 500 million synchrotron source at Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxford.

The decision leaves the UK's existing centre of excellence in synchrotron science and engineering, Warrington-based Daresbury Laboratory, facing closure. Under tough questioning from MPs, Lord Sainsbury insisted the decision was made on purely scientific grounds. He rejected suggestions that it reflected the government's bias towards the "golden triangle" bounded by Oxford, Cambridge and London.

Former Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown, making his debut on the science and technology select committee, homed in on the competitive bidding process under which the decision was made.

Mr Ashdown fired a salvo of questions about apparent discrepancies between the views of the Wellcome Trust, a project partner, and the Office of Science and Technology over the decision-making process.

The first discrepancy emerged in a letter sent by the Wellcome Trust's chief executive, Michael Dexter, to Warrington Borough Council and Halton Borough Council soon after the decision to site the synchrotron at RAL had been made earlier this year.

In the letter, Dr Dexter saidthat when the trust first discussed the location of the project with OST in January 1999, the charity suggested an open competition to determine the best site. Dr Dexter added: "Initially they (the OST) agreed to our suggestion but later proposed (April 1999) that the synchrotron be located at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory. Prior to the OST's recommendation for RAL, we had not seriously considered any locations."

The charity was eventually persuaded by the OST that locating the synchrotron at RAL was the best option, agreeing to it in June 1999, said Dr Dexter. Mr Ashdown asked Lord Sainsbury whether the trust's version of events was true and whether the decision to site the synchrotron at RAL had been taken as early as last April - before publication of a specially commissioned OST study by consultant ADD, looking into the merits of the various site options.

The science minister insisted this was not the case. Mr Ashdown responded:

"But that is entirely contrary to the information we now haveI the letter clearly indicates the OST had not only reached a conclusion favourable to RAL as early as April... but was broadcasting that conclusion about before the ADD study had been produced."

John Taylor, the director general of the research councils, was giving evidence alongside Lord Sainsbury. Asked to comment on the discrepancy Dr Taylor said: "I really do not think we were anywhere near that kind of decision-making at the time."

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