In Europe, science collides with the bottom line

Projects such as the effort to re-create the big bang are falling victim to larger forces: the need to pay the bills.
By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 6, 2010; 9:46 PM

MEYRIN, Switzerland - Using a machine kept colder than space, scientists at the world's most ambitious international research facility are puzzling out the questions of the universe, working to re-create the cosmic soup served up by the Big Bang. But the famous institute is also facing a far more earthly conundrum: how to pay the bills.

An era of fiscal austerity is sweeping over Europe, with governments moving to slash record budget deficits and avoid a Greek-like debt crisis by cutting everything from aid for single mothers to once-sacred state jobs.

Under mounting political pressure, some countries are now balking at the mega-price tags of lofty regional cooperation projects such as the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), home to the "Big Bang Machine" that sprawls for miles across this complex straddling the picturesque border of Switzerland and France.

Under orders of Europe governments to cut costs, CERN officials say the institute is planning to mothball all nine particle accelerators at the facility beginning in 2012 - saving $25 million on electricity alone. It will mean a critical period of lost opportunities for visiting research fellows and a year without fresh data for projects, including one on the cusp of trapping an atom of antimatter to better understand the early formation of the universe.

"It will now take a little longer to answer some of these questions," said Rolf-Dieter Heuer, CERN's director general.

The pressure on European science, observers here say, is yet another legacy of the financial crisis. Nations that overextended themselves over the past decade, taking on more and more debt, are now facing liabilities so large that politicians in a growing number of European countries have decided that dramatic cuts in public spending are the only answer. That stands in sharp contrast with the United States, where government spending - including on science and technology - continues to steam ahead despite the record U.S. deficit.

Some here fear that Europe could fall behind in the highly competitive world of scientific research, where it now goes head to head with the United States and Japan.

The new coalition government in Britain, European science officials say, is leading the austerity charge, but other nations including Italy and Spain are also warning of empty pockets that are curbing their contributions to science.

Britain, for instance, has said it may not be ready to commit in December to funding for a second, far more powerful European telescope on a mountaintop in Chile that could discern atmospheres on incredibly distant planets. Science officials warn that domestic cuts in Britain set to be laid out in October might also force the temporary closure of one of two high-tech national facilities near Oxford - the Diamond Light Source particle accelerator or the Isis neutron source.

To maintain programs at the European Space Agency, Germany - which has vigorously protected science and technology spending at home - is stepping in to cover shortfalls from other nations, like Spain. But even so, the space agency is set to cut internal and administrative costs by 25 percent to cope with fiscal pressures and is waiting to see whether European governments will agree to new funding to help sustain the International Space Station until at least 2020.

Meanwhile, the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in Grenoble, France - where researchers used X-ray fluorescence to illuminate the genius of Leonardo da Vinci's brush strokes and to study the skulls of ancient hominids - has been asked by government donors to assess the impact of potentially sharp cuts to its annual budget.

"We are all impacted, we are all living on the same planet as our member states," said Jean-Jacques Dordain, the space agency's director general. "And we cannot ignore that most of our member states now have budget constraints."

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