The 'shambles' over Daresbury

January 28, 2000

Labour MP Ian Gibson attacks his government's handling of the

siting of the new synchrotron source. Kam Patel reports

Former academic and Labour MP Ian Gibson has launched a scathing attack on the government's handling of the siting of Britain's new Pounds 600 million synchrotron source.

The choice was ostensibly to have been made on the basis of competitive bidding from Daresbury Laboratory in Warrington and the Oxford-based Rutherford Appleton Laboratory.

But unions at Daresbury have been complaining vociferously of a lack of transparency in the bidding and decision-making process. They also accuse the Wellcome Trust, which is contributing Pounds 110 million towards the project over its lifetime, of using its funding as a lever to have the source sited at RAL. The trust rejects this accusation and recently revealed that RAL had been the choice of John Taylor, director general of research councils at the Department of Trade and Industry, for many months.

Dr Gibson's comments follow a revealing grilling of trade and industry secretary Stephen Byers last week by MPs on the House of Commons science and technology select committee, of which Dr Gibson is a member. An embarrassed and irritated Mr Byers was forced to admit that Dr Taylor had not been given any ministerial sanction to make a unilateral decision on the source's location.

Dr Gibson, ex-dean of the school of biological sciences at the University of East Anglia, said the project's handling by the DTI's Office of Science and Technology had been an "absolute shambles".

He added: "It's been a disaster from day one We have reached a point where a minister has been severely embarrassed by colleagues who have been unable to communicate with each other and work out procedures whereby charities and government know exactly who makes the decisions and when. It has been a prime example of British fudge, muddle and incompetence." Clear, transparent processes must be in place before any further such collaborations between the two, he said.

Dr Gibson, who is pushing for a new science white paper, also questions the role of science minister Lord Sainsbury in the affair and wonders at the silence of the government's chief scientific adviser: "It does not augur well for British science. Certainly if I was John Taylor, I would be seriously examining my position."

Dr Gibson, chairman of the parliamentary office of science and technology, believes the trust's exposure of Dr Taylor as an "RAL man" is further indication of the director general's bias for heavy investment in the "golden triangle" bounded by Oxford, Cambridge and London.

He said: "There should be greater distribution of resources - especially when, as with Daresbury, it is more than merited by the quality of scientists and engineers making the bid. This seemingly automatic link between resources and the golden triangle should have no place in a forward-thinking science strategy."

Dr Gibson also has deep misgivings about the direction of government science policy, in particular its increasing emphasis on industrial application and the formation of spin-offs by academics.

"There is a real problem in wanting scientists to be independent and at the same time asking them to give independent advice. If you want the public to believe in what you are doing as a scientist, you cannot even be perceived to be doing it for personal gain or profit."

He said the government's push for more spin-offs from universities is a "pipe dream". "The belief that Britain is California is to be dispelled. There may be spin-offs occasionally but to think people here do research with a product in mind is naive. Most academics think it's vulgar and despise the idea. That may sound vulgar and arrogant in itself but you do need a world in which people can sit back, think, experiment without profit pressures ... and, by golly, make discoveries that could save lives."

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