Go back

The European Spallation Source finally sees the light of day

Colin Carlile and Anna Thomasson look at how the next-generation neutron source will change the scientific landscape, and why it has taken 25 years to begin construction.

In the 1980s, Peter Egelstaff, the father of neutron beam physics in Britain, presented a sobering plot in his talks showing that, since the 1950s, the gestation period of large science facilities had increased by 1 year for every year that had passed. It’s a trend that has continued.

The European Spallation Source, a neutron beam facility of unprecedented power, is a perfect example. Twenty-five years have slipped by since the first meeting to discuss the ESS was held in Simonskall, Germany. The construction of the ESS, on a 76-hectare site on the edge of the small university town of Lund in southern Sweden, began on 2 September 2014 with a symbolic breaking of the ground, and the foundation stone will be laid today. But it will be another 15 years before the ESS is operating at full specification.

The reality, then, is that 40 years are needed to realise a world-leading science facility. Any researchers who feel bloody-minded enough to embark on such an undertaking must be prepared to spend their whole careers with their shoulders pressed firmly to the wheel.

Why should it take so long to come to a decision on large science facilities? If a commercial company were to prevaricate in a similar manner, it would quickly go out of business. So how is it acceptable that publicly funded projects should be allowed to drag along in this way, draining taxpayers’ money?

Reaching decisions on large science facilities is an arcane, tortuous and wasteful process that condemns a huge number of highly trained people to a significant amount of time spent fighting the inherent lethargy of a system that sometimes seems to thrive on inertia. As such, there is no map for reaching a decision. The ESS has had to force decision-making processes where none existed before.

Funding is another issue. Meeting in Lisbon in 2000 and Barcelona in 2002, the elected heads of the EU member states agreed to increase R&D spending to 3 per cent of GDP. Europe was to become “the world’s leading knowledge-based economy” by 2010. This never came close to being realised; the euphoria of Lisbon and Barcelona was quickly doused when reality kicked in. With this promised investment lacking, energy has had to be expended fighting for the funds that actually exist.

Decision-making then becomes excruciatingly slow, and siting decisions become intractable. One result is that projects naturally suited to a single site find themselves geographically split. Examples include the European Institute of Innovation and Technology, the singular name for which belies its continent-wide dispersal, and the Extreme Light Infrastructure, which is shared between Hungary, Romania and the Czech Republic.

The rationale behind such inelegant compromises seems to be that political expediency trumps such niceties as the optimum functioning of a facility. But facility managers must work with the legacy of these slowly reached yet poorly thought-out and compromised decisions for their facility’s half-century lifespan.

At the same time, risk aversion kicks in as, given the rarity of such decisions, governance bodies, even though they pay lip service to innovation and sustainability, demand that nothing fails and that costs are pared to the bone. This raises the tension between the project managers of science facilities, who want to take decisions at an appropriately late moment so as to take advantage of technical advances, and those entrusted with their governance, many of whom seek full control and are uneasy with the creative scientific culture.

Given the inordinate lead time, then, is it worth all the blood, sweat and tears needed to construct a neutron source? Well, in a nutshell, neutrons reach those parts of materials that other probes cannot, testing their properties in all their diversity and all their complexity. And this is a field in which Europe leads the world—not, perhaps, a sufficient argument for the neutron source to be constructed, but it is easier to stay ahead than to get ahead. The ESS will consolidate that lead rather handsomely, provided a number of conditions are met.

A lot of things can, of course, change in 40 years. Original visions can become dulled, to the detriment of the end product. The landscape of neutron sources in Europe has changed, and it is still changing. The relatively large number of neutron sources, ranging from the world-leading and admired Institut Laue-Langevin, or ILL, in France to the splendid but moderately powered facility at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, has been an ever-present and reliable foundation for the discipline. The smaller sources have acted as nurseries for instrumental and scientific ideas, and been used to breed instrument builders. They have allowed ideas in materials science and instrumentation to be tried, tested and refined before being used at the bigger sources.

“Reinvent yourself,” physicist Gabriel Aeppli once told the scientists at the ILL, “before someone else does it for you.” This clarion call contributed to the institute embarking on a sustained and highly effective investment in instrumentation, known as the Millennium Programme, which answered to some degree the neutron drought that some in the field had warned of in the late 1990s. At the same time, the building of a second target station on the Isis short-pulse neutron source near Oxford enhanced the output of that facility, the unexpectedly high performance of which had tipped the balance in favour of spallation.

Even so, most of these sources first began to operate in the 1960s and 1970s. They were already a couple of decades old by the time of that first ESS meeting, when the need for a next-generation neutron source for Europe was recognised. They are now nearing the sunset of their functional lives and in their place come just the FRM-II reactor in Munich, which began operating in 2005, and, eventually, the ESS.

There will, then, be fewer neutron sources. Access to neutron beams will become scarcer, and the technique will become more mysterious. The synergetic strength of neutron science in Europe will diminish drastically. The weight of public, political and scientific expectation, and responsibility to users from different disciplines, will fall on the collective shoulders of the ESS construction team, based in Lund but spread throughout Europe in a score of top-class laboratories.

The ESS will use spallation, a known technology, rather than fission, to generate its neutron beams. But unlike every other source in the world, all of which generate either continuous or sharply pulsed beams, it will use a long pulse, making it a new kind of neutron source. This will ensure excellent neutron economy and brightness that opens up different areas of science, but it will also require innovative instrumentation. So the ESS will, in many ways, be its own prototype: project managers must hit the bullseye, and they only have one shot.

There are many inspiring precedents for getting it right first time, notably the moon landing. But success must be built on support from three major groups: politicians, scientists and the public. Scientifically, the ESS will have to surpass, quantitatively and qualitatively, the impressive output of the ILL, not simply because it is more powerful, but because neutron beam facilities will become, by the middle of the next decade, one-stop research centres with perhaps only two or three other sources in Europe to share the demand.

To see how this further raises the stakes, look at the comparison with synchrotron radiation research. With X-ray diffractometers in every science department in every university in every country and a burgeoning number of increasingly high-intensity sources, synchrotron radiation facilities have a self-refreshing community versed in and comfortable with the technique. Researchers arrive at the top facilities ready to make the most of their hard-won beam time, having served apprenticeships elsewhere.

Neutron science has no such luxury. The ESS, with mutual support from all neutron facilities, must forge a new approach to stakeholders and users, working on shorter timescales than source builders. Neutron science can learn from disciplines such as astronomy, where data become public property after 12 months. This policy has doubled the number of publications coming from Hubble telescope observing time—fully 50 per cent of the papers are written by authors who have no association with the observing proposals. Twice as much scientific output for the same money. Neutron science should be able to harness the scientific potential in this and other innovations.

Clearly, decision-making for large research infrastructures cannot be allowed to become even more lethargic, self-interested and diffuse, or we risk destroying what we seek to nurture. There has to be a measure of selflessness that allows decisions to be made for the greater good rather than, as it can appear, to benefit individual stakeholders first and the facility second. That has to be done in a spirit of mutual benefit.

In 1966, the economist and Nobel laureate Alfred Kahn described the debilitating effect of the “tyranny of small decisions”, and this applies to science facilities including the ESS just as much as to the withdrawal of local transport services or the exploitation of natural resources. What may appear to be rational, individual decisions pursued by the parties in a project do not necessarily turn out best for the project itself. Europe must critically examine and revamp its decision-making processes to create a new sense of urgency.

The ESS has navigated these obstacles, albeit over a far longer period and with a far greater human and financial burden than was necessary, demonstrating that one ingredient for success must be the aforementioned bloody-mindedness. The ESS has turned the page to the next chapter: its construction and commissioning. This will continue for another decade, when science of the highest quality will begin to flow. We look forward to that moment with great anticipation.

More to say? Email comment@ResearchResearch.com

Colin Carlile is in the department of physics and astronomy at Uppsala University. He was director-general of the European Spallation Source from 2007 to 2013. Anna Thomasson is in Lund University’s school of economics and management.

This article also appeared in Research Europe