Wellcome southeast bias starts fierce row

December 3, 1999

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

The Wellcome Trust last week revealed its case for having the United Kingdom's new Pounds 175 million X-ray source located at Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL) in Oxfordshire rather than Warrington-based Daresbury Laboratory.

The siting of the source has blown up into a huge row with unions at Daresbury accusing the trust of using its Pounds 110 million contribution to the project to lever the Department of Trade and Industry into locating the source within the "golden triangle" encompassing Oxford, Cambridge and London.

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

Scientists at Daresbury argue that the overlap between users of the two sources is so small it cannot be justified as a reason for co-location. The trust, however, argues that even if this is so, this band of users "includes 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 academic and

non-academic strengths in physical and biological sciences and a Medical Research Council unit with expertise in genetics, radiobiology and international collaboration. Location of the source at RAL would also help underpin the Oxford science cluster, the trust added.

An independent consultant's report for the trust concluded "there are greater planning risks and site constraints associated with the Daresbury site". The study raised concerns about the "boxed- in" nature of the Daresbury site; "limitations" of the planning permission granted to Daresbury and the "high risk" associated should specifications need to change. The consultants are also worried about the incline of the site at Daresbury and the engineering measures required to secure nearby structures once excavation begins. "While most of these issues are not insurmountable, they could represent an additional cost to the project," the trust said.

The charity said one of its key aims for the project is to ensure it attracts the best scientists. The trust is "concerned about whether the Daresbury site can provide the necessary scientific culture and physical environment to realise this".

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". The trust and the French continue to hold this position. The charity warns that this international collaboration "may be compromised" if the synchrotron is sited at Daresbury.

A union spokesman at Daresbury said of Wellcome's case for RAL: "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."

Labour MP Ian Gibson, chairman of the parliamentary office of science and technology, this week threw his weight behind Daresbury's bid. He said: "I want a much more general distribution of science and engineering resources across the country. Currently it is heavily oriented towards the southeast of England. The seemingly automatic link between new resources and the 'golden triangle' of Cambridge, Oxford and London must be destroyed."

The DTI is now hoping the deadlock over the location of the source can be resolved through a new probe into the views of its users in the physical and biological sciences. The investigation is to be led by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. Expert panels in the two fields will be asked to give their views on the location of the new source.

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