So, what's the big idea?

Academics are being invited to draw up a list of large facilities they would like to see built. Zoë Corbyn reports

August 27, 2009

Do you need a new type of telescope to study the stars? Or do you covet a new research ship to ride the waves?

Academics are being offered the opportunity to add to a wish list of large research facilities they would like to see created in the future.

Research Councils UK (RCUK), the umbrella group for the UK's seven research councils, last week began a consultation seeking suggestions from researchers and their learned societies for items to be included on the UK's so-called Large Facilities Roadmap. It provides a list of potential large facility and infrastructure projects that UK researchers would like to see built over the next ten to 15 years.

The project will update an existing 2008 roadmap. Feedback is sought on a draft, with RCUK planning to finalise it in March next year.

"It is a light-touch update," explained Claire Graves, head of knowledge transfer and economic impact at RCUK, who oversaw the roadmap in her former role as senior policy manager. "It is basically giving people the opportunity to tell us what needs to go in that is not already there."

Dr Graves stressed that projects would need to be of the "highest strategic importance" to have a chance of being selected and said feedback was also being sought on the overall balance of projects listed in the document.

The ultimate aim of the roadmap - which lists about 70 facilities that are either being built, in need of upgrading or could be built from scratch - is to allow the councils to take a strategic view of what world-class research facilities UK scientists might need and how best to manage the investment.

Covering all academic disciplines, facilities can either be national or joint projects to be developed with European or global partners. The new draft, for example, lists 26 projects from a separate European list - the so-called European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures (ESFRI) roadmap. This number, however, is likely to be reduced in the future, as preparatory studies by the EU reveal whether or not the projects are worth pursuing.

While there is no guarantee that a facility on the UK roadmap will receive funding, inclusion on the list is a necessary first step. The roadmap will be used by the research councils to draw up a shortlist of facilities that they will suggest should receive funding from the Large Facilities Capital Fund. This pot is typically worth about £100 million a year and the next round of funding is due at the end of 2010.

Dr Graves said that there were six new projects on the 2009 roadmap, and she stressed that none had been removed from last year's version. Two of the additions, listed as European projects, are the Cherenkov Telescope Array - a £105 million project to build a new ground-based observatory to study high-energy gamma rays - and the Svalbard Integrated Arctic Earth Observing System, a proposal to upgrade the research infrastructure on the Nordic island to study climate and environmental change.

The remaining four new projects are national facilities. The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) has proposed a power upgrade to Vulcan, the national laser facility based at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, which has a price tag of around £25 million. The Natural Environment Research Council is proposing a £50 million "omics facility" to study environmental genomics, a £30 million "platforms and instrumentation" investment to improve observations from space and a £20 million "integrated rural and urban observatories" investment to provide a sensor network, so that observations made in the countryside can be beamed easily to central facilities.

Yet while researcher input is being sought, there are some who have questioned the value of the roadmap process. John Wood, the former chief executive of the Council for the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils (which was merged with the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council to form the STFC), and senior international adviser at Imperial College London, said it was not clear how research councils were going to decide which facilities to press ahead with.

He said it was "pretty difficult" to work out what the UK's official position was on "any of the large facility proposals at present", adding that the Netherlands, Germany and Sweden had all made decisions about which projects they wanted to support. "It is really very sad that the UK is seen to be lagging in taking things forward," he said.

"The real shame is that, with all the research councils trying to get in on the act, the vision for investing in large physical infrastructure is getting lost." The consultation on the UK facilities roadmap closes on 9 November.

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