Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Saving the Australian Synchrotron

By John Boldeman

The possibility that political wrangling could lead to the closure of the Australian Synchrotron is almost beyond comprehension.

All advanced societies have at their core a body of technological scientists and engineers who contribute substantially to the economic and sociological development of their populations.

Switzerland is one nation that stands out. It does not belong to the European Union, it has limited mineral resources and has to rely on the expertise and capabilities of its people. At the centre of its national competence is a proportionally large number of experienced engineers and scientists who depend on their advanced scientific infrastructure.

Among the frontier facilities in Switzerland are the Swiss Light Source, the Spallation Neutron Source and the Proton Therapy Facility in addition to many less capital-intensive equipment. Construction of a Free Electron Laser, a new landmark facility, is on schedule.

Australia, by contrast, has very limited major scientific infrastructure. It was clear in the 1980s that the key major facility needed to back our economy was a synchrotron. Many senior Australian scientists and engineers believed that an Australian facility was an unrealistic dream and that it was essential to expand Australia’s use of international synchrotron facilities.

However, over the next decade the Australian research community expanded dramatically and several proposals were developed to construct a national facility. Finally, the Australian Synchrotron was funded and built in Melbourne.

Despite the relatively modest investment by world standards, the synchrotron has proven competitive with international facilities costing significantly more money. It has been an outstanding success since opening in 2007.

In any one year, approximately 3000 national and international scientists use its beamlines and associated experimental infrastructure to conduct research at the core of their programs. This is a significant percentage of the entire scientific working class in Australia.

Synchrotron research is having an impact on technology in Australia. There are linkages with 88 separate companies including global leaders such as CSL and local companies such as Algae Enterprises, Agilent Technologies and Phosphagenics Ltd. Already the Australian Synchrotron has been instrumental in the lodgement of 15 patents.

However, some of the most critical research is of a long-term nature, such as the extraordinary work on the understanding of how malaria, golden staph and streptococcus infections progress in the human body, studies of factors in Alzheimer’s disease, and numerous contributions to the mining industries.

The possibility that politics could now intervene and lead to the closure of the Australian Synchrotron is almost beyond comprehension. As one commentator said recently, Australia holds onto world-class science by its fingernails, primarily through the Australian Synchrotron and OPAL, the research reactor.

The primary focus of the scientific and technology community is its work and how it might benefit all Australians. Politics is of lesser significance until it starts to have an impact on our activities and the benefits that we can bring to the community. A solution to the current funding stand-off is essential before serious harm is done.

But who will pay for the ongoing operation and development of the Australian Synchrotron?

All Australian states will benefit from the activities of researchers using the Australian Synchrotron, so the Commonwealth must contribute to its operations. But Victoria will benefit from the research more than any other state as almost all of the operational funds will be spent there.

In the documentation that was originally prepared to generate support for the Australian Synchrotron, the degree of local state benefit was studied. Typically, 65% of all users and the consequence of their endeavours went to the home state.

If the measure of cost responsibility were determined on this basis, the Commonwealth and Victoria would share the cost on a 50/50 basis.

The Australian Synchrotron is already in Melbourne. It cannot be moved elsewhere, so ownership should not be an issue.

It would be unthinkable for Australia to withdraw from the London Olympics. Surely it would be unthinkable to close our premier world-class research facility.

John Boldeman FTSE is a professor at the Institute of Nuclear Science at the University of Sydney and a Senior Science Advisor at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation.