Uncertainty over mega science projects in Europe

Published in the Hindu on August 26, 2010


Representatives from 20 nations involved in the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) project will be meeting to discuss budget cuts over the next five years. — Photo: Wikimedia Commons

It was never a question of whether but when the funding for mega science projects in Europe or funded by European countries would get affected by the financial downturn. Alas, it appears that many projects are running out of luck this time.

And that is sad news for science, particularly basic sciences. Unlike the U.S., most of the mega projects underway in Europe or funded by European countries are to understand and investigate various phenomena in different fields in basic sciences.

But it should be remembered that none of the mega projects faced the axe or had to make do with reduced funding during the recent global recession. In a way, they were insulated from the gloom of the global recession. But their luck seems to be running out.

With another recession beginning to build up in the U.S and most of the European countries, the fate of many mega projects like the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the world’s most powerful particle collider located at CERN, is uncertain.

According to a news report in today’s (Aug 26) Nature, representatives from 20 nations involved in CERN will be meeting to discuss budget cuts over the next five years.

Other victims

And in the next few months, other organisations are “facing decisions on whether to delay new projects, put upgrades on hold or make cuts in an attempt to appease their struggling member States,” notes Nature.

Unlike the projects in the U.S., most of the mega projects based in Europe are built and run with financial contribution by many European countries. Some, like the CERN, involve the U.S. and Asian countries as well.

The other projects that have been created the same way like CERN include the European Molecular Biology laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg, Germany and a series of massive telescopes built in the Chilean desert and spacecraft to observe Earth and beyond.

The only silver lining is that these organisations operate under treaties. And such treaties ensure that any funding committed by member States is strictly adhered to. This ensures that the projects are never left in a limbo all of a sudden.

The funding decisions taken during budget meetings are hotly debated. The five-year funding budget for CERN that came up recently for approval saw the U.K. putting up strong resistance. The message was simple and clear — the budget had to be revised to save money.

The extraordinary meeting to discuss the revision plan on Aug 25 will have its repercussions. Among other things, suspension of activities at CERN’s smaller accelerators during a shutdown of LHC in 2012, and a slow down in the development of Compact Linear Collider advanced accelerator technology.

One of the European nations that is strongly against the business-as-usual funding is the U.K. The U.K. is the third largest funding country, next to France and Germany. Incidentally, France and Germany are far better placed financially than U.K. and other nations in the continent.

Cost saving by Britain

According to Nature, John Womersley, the director of science programmes at the U.K. Science and Technology Facilities Council has indicated that Britain will be “calling for tough savings across the board” for several of the mega projects. Britain is planning “deep cuts in public spending.”

Britain is compelled to weigh the options of continuing to fund the mega projects as usual at the cost of internal projects or to cut funds for projects abroad to support its own scientists.

Next in line that will face the consequences of reduced funding is the European Space Agency (ESA). According to Nature, the Agency has put on hold most new missions. The only two programmes that will escape any funding crunch will be the extension of the International Space Station programme until 2020 and the development of the next generation of the Ariane 5 rocket.

Projects unaffected

While the European Synchrotron Facility (ESRF) supported by 19 countries, including Israel, will be the worst hit, the 1.5 billion euro European Spallation Source, a new neutron-scattering facility that will be located in Lund, Sweden may not face the same fate.

The reasons are quite simple: the project start date is 2013 and the Scandinavian States are strongly backing the project.

Similarly, the 1 billion euro European Extremely Large Telescope project that will have a 42-metre diameter telescope located in Cerro Armazones in the central part of Chile’s Atacama Desert may escape budget tightening.