Australian Synchrotron: scientific marvel, political puzzle

It’s synch or swim time for one of the country’s leading facilities.

The funding woes of the Australian Synchrotron – a landmark scientific research facility located in Melbourne – have made news in recent weeks. How can such a fabulous resource, with such potential to contribute to our nation’s future health and wealth, be in such a vulnerable position?

It’s a long and intriguing story … but let’s begin a little further afield.

Sport has always ranked orders of magnitude above science in the collective Australian consciousness. Most Australians could name our greatest cricketer, Don Bradman, but few could name Australia’s first Nobel prize winner, Lawrence Bragg.

That’s surprising, really. Given our national fixation on winning at the international level, you’d think Australians would lap up the fact that Bragg holds the record for being the youngest ever Nobel prize winner, at the ripe old age of 25.

Bragg and his father helped develop the field of crystallography that allows us to see the structure of matter at atomic level. This field has generated innovations and discoveries far beyond what Bragg could have imagined, including the first drugs to treat influenza, revolutionary materials for airplane manufacture, and unraveling the code of life, the double helix structure of DNA.

Crystallography is a field in which Australia excels, and it makes major use of synchrotron light.

What is a synchrotron?

Imagine a sports stadium where 30 world-class events run concurrently 24 hours a day; where elite sports men and women gather together and perform at their best, swap ideas and train up-and-coming stars. Now, instead of sports events, imagine this stadium hosts world-class scientific experiments which, instead of sports stars, are performed by scientific stars.

This multi-tasking scientific stadium is a synchrotron, a place for cutting-edge chemistry, physics, biology and medical research, for cross-pollinating ideas across these interfaces and for creating the innovations of the future.

The structure comprises a storage ring in which electrons circulate at close to the speed of light, and in which the energy of those electrons is expressed in the form of intensely brilliant light, which is then captured and focused into specialised beamlines optimised for diverse experiments.

 

So why the recent woes? The explanation can be traced directly back to a unilateral decision in 2001 by the then Victorian Labor Government.

That year, the Howard Federal Government had called for applications for Major National Research Facilities. Three synchrotron bids were submitted: one each from Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland. All three were shortlisted for interview, along with several other non-synchrotron bids.

To the shock of all stakeholders, and virtually on the eve of the interviews, the Victorian Government announced it had “decided to proceed … without relying on a decision on funding by the Howard Government”. Victoria would fund the building of a national synchrotron itself.

It’s hard to imagine a more ill-conceived plan for the birth of a national collaborative research facility. By pulling out of the competitive process, Victoria had effectively kissed goodbye to Federal Government funding for a synchrotron.

At the same time, the announcement doomed the Queensland and New South Wales bids. After all, Australia didn’t need two such national facilities. Thus, in one fell swoop, Bracks and Brumby had disenfranchised Queensland, New South Wales and Federal Government involvement in this national facility.

But worse was to come. When the dust settled, it became clear that Victoria was not fully funding the facility: about a quarter of the $200 million needed was to come from “Foundation Investors”. For $5 million a pop, you could buy a piece of the Synchrotron and have a say in how it was used, governed, managed and developed.

Not surprisingly, it was many years before the rifts healed sufficiently for QLD and NSW consortia to buy in as Foundation Investors. But the Federal Government remained resolute: in 2001 the Victorian government had said it didn’t need Federal funding, and that was that.

The Federal Government did not become a Foundation Investor; and without this buy-in, it did not have a share in the company set up to run the Synchrotron; and, as a result, it had no say in the governance of the facility.

So the Synchrotron was built to world-class standards and since 2007 has been producing great science, often carried out by international teams led by researchers from Australian Universities and CSIRO.

Eventually, the Federal Government contributed $65 million towards beamlines and other infrastructure through competitive funding schemes, and in 2007 went 50:50 with the Victorian Government in providing $100 million for operating costs to run the facility from mid-2007 to mid-2012.

Crunch time

The 2007 operating funds run out in the middle of next year. Where is funding to come from to pay for the next phase?

Most observers believe that the only way forward for this wonderfully productive national facility is for the Victorian and Federal Governments to collaborate. But the new Victorian Government didn’t make the decision to build the Synchrotron, and have referred to it as a Labor “black hole”.

And on the other side, the Federal Government is the second largest investor in the facility, having contributed well in excess of $100 million to date – yet it has no ownership. Why should it “keep bailing out” the facility, in the words of Senator Kim Carr?

So that is where we are at now. Scientists are on tenterhooks about whether they will be able to complete their experiments and synchrotron staff are worrying about job security.

But we must be optimistic that sanity will prevail. After all, the Victorian and Federal Governments cannot ignore the tremendous value of the Synchrotron for Australian science and Australia’s future international competitiveness.

The relevant ministers in the State and Federal Governments, Louise Asher and Kim Carr, need to rise above the issues of the past, and work together to resolve the muddle bequeathed to them by others. Most likely that will require creating a new governance model for post mid-2012 that overcomes the problems of the current one.

At the very least the Federal Government must have a seat at the Synchrotron table, and there must be an agreed funding mechanism that gives some level of certainty that research and development can continue.