Wellcome bias stirs up unions

December 10, 1999

Daresbury scientists are up in arms about the likely siting of a new X-ray source in Oxfordshire. Kam Patel reports

The Wellcome Trust's case for locating the United Kingdom's new Pounds 175 million synchrotron radiation source at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL) in Oxfordshire has come under strong fire from Halton Borough Council, the backer of Daresbury Laboratory's bid for the facility.

The trust believes there are "potential scientific synergies" to be gained in the physical and life sciences by locating the X-ray synchrotron source with Rutherford's existing neutron source, Isis.

Scientists at Daresbury in Cheshire argue that the overlap between users of the two sources is so small it cannot justify co-

location. The trust, however, says that even if this is so, this band of users "include many eminent scientists in all fields of science". Co-location is a "real and unique opportunity to create an interdisciplinary research centre", it insisted.

Other attractions of RAL for the trust include its strengths in physical and biological sciences and a Medical Research Council unit with expertise in genetics, radiobiology and international collaboration. Siting the X-ray source at RAL would also help underpin the Oxford science cluster, the trust added.

An independent consultant's report for the trust concluded that "there are greater planning risks and site constraints associated with the Daresbury site". The study raised concerns about the Daresbury site's "boxed-in" nature, "limitations" of the planning permission granted to Daresbury and the "high risk" involved if the specifications need to change. The consultant is also worried about the incline of the Daresbury site and the measures required to secure other structures during excavation.

But Halton Borough Council has strongly questioned the consultant's findings. A council spokeswoman said the consultant firm had not contacted Halton Council planning officers. "Had they done so, they would have established that the planning conditions are common and normal to any proposal of this scale how this can be a negative factor compared with the non-existence of planning permission at RAL is remarkable." The spokeswoman said the trust's reference was "extremely puzzling" and that the council knows of no significant or unusual problems at the site. "The trust statement is factually incorrect, extremely biased in its statements and poorly researched," she said. The council is calling for a "full and informed debate to dispel misinformation about planning and other alleged constraints at Daresbury".

The trust said it was also "concerned about whether the Daresbury site could provide the necessary scientific culture and physical environment to realise this". It added that over the past six months,

discussions between the trust, the French government (a collaborator on the project) and the Office of Science and Technology have been "based on the understanding that the RAL site was the preferred location for the new synchrotron".

Of Wellcome's case for RAL, a union spokesman at Daresbury said: "There is very little substance in what is being put forward. The arguments are flimsy, extremely one-sided and fail to mention the significant risks associated with the RAL site." He added: "The trust's aspirations of interdisciplinary research already exist in part in the northwest and can easily expand. The local planning authorities are fully supportive of developments on the Daresbury site."

Labour MP Ian Gibson, chairman of the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, is backing Daresbury's bid. He said: "I want a much more general distribution of science and engineering resources across country. The seemingly automatic link between new resources and the 'golden triangle' of Cambridge, Oxford and London must be destroyed."

In an effort to end the increasingly acrimonious dispute, industry secretary Stephen Byers has ordered two more studies and promised a decision by mid-January. Expert panels of life and physical scientists whose research will be dependent on the source are to convene next week to give their judgement on where it should be located. Mr Byers has also asked for independent engineering site surveys of the two locations.

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