Friday, June 18, 2010

Big science backs national synchrotron

GAVIN Brown, Suzanne Cory, Barry Jones and Margaret Sheil are among the 12 big names in science to join Gustav Nossal in a new body to champion the Australian Synchrotron.
Sir Gustav, groundbreaking immunologist and 2000 Australian of the Year, said the new National Science Colloquium would advise on a strategy to make the most of the $206 million Melbourne-based facility.

"This is one of the largest single investments that the nation has made in a piece of equipment," he said. "It rivals in size and scope the great telescopes, which have made our astronomy world famous."

Australia's only synchrotron - a particle accelerator that enables experiments in fields such as medicine, physics and biology - has been judged a scientific success since its 2007 launch, but last year it descended into a crisis of leadership, governance and planning.

Sir Gustav said the National Science Colloquium, which he chairs, would be able to offer independent and credible advice on the competing claims of the synchrotron and other scientific causes because its members were senior enough to be "above the fray". "Who's going to advise government in the most sensible way about what you might call the macro-economics; why this [expansion of the synchrotron] rather than a new astronomy telescope? Why this rather than a new cancer research institute?" he said.

He said the NSC would hold its first meeting as soon as a newly appointed facility director was available to attend.

Late last week there were interviews to find a successor to founding director Rob Lamb, who was removed in October last year during the governance crisis at the facility. The NSC membership draws on senior scientists involved in administration and policy.

Professor Brown, former vice-chancellor of the University of Sydney, directs the Royal Institution of Australia.

Professor Cory, president of the Australian Academy of Science, is a former director of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute. Dr Jones is a science populariser and a former federal government minister and Professor Sheil leads the Australian Research Council.

Others on the NSC include Warwick Anderson (National Health and Medical Research Council), Robin Batterham (former chief scientist for Australia and president of Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering), and Lyn Beazley (chief scientist for Western Australia).

The synchrotron has nine beamlines.

"Think of each of them as an experimental lab, hanging off the accelerator for the photons, and serving a particular discipline," Sir Gustav said.

He said the facility, whose operating money runs out in 2012, hoped to add two new beamlines every year for five years to open up new fields of research and attract more scientists as users.

Sir Gustav said the NSC would scrutinise this plan, the priorities for various kinds of beamlines and advise the synchrotron board.

"Maybe the NSC will say one a year for the next five years or maybe it will say three," he said.

The Melbourne facility has a scientific advisory committee to advise the board on "strategic scientific direction", according to the synchrotron website.

Deep disagreement between the board and this committee was central to last year's conflict. Sir Gustav was asked to form the NSC in the thick of the conflict.

Asked whether his NSC might give advice at odds with advice from the scientific advisory committee, Sir Gustav said: "That is a good hypothetical question. My answer would be, I hope not."

In general terms, Sir Gustav strongly favoured expansion of the facility.

"Its use is limited only by the imagination of the investigators, there is practically no limit to the usefulness of this machine," he said. "We think this is the best synchrotron, for its size, in the world. [But] there are some experiments you just can't do on this synchrotron and the people will go to Tokyo or to Chicago.

"The world doesn't stand still. Science is very competitive.

"In other nations, they're creeping ahead."

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