In Europe, science collides with the bottom line
Tuesday, September 7, 2010
IN 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 from European 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. The move 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 in 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 to 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 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, such as 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."
For years, science research in Europe has been somewhat of a sacred cow - an area in which the zeal to pioneer knowledge for commercial and academic gain spawned jointly funded mega-projects. Indeed, science officials here say they see the current fiscal pressures as temporary, with European governments remaining strongly committed to long-term research.
But the pain of austerity is particularly acute at CERN, the European atomic physics complex whose almost-mystical research - at temperatures approaching absolute zero, or minus-273 degrees Celsius - has been dramatized in books such as Dan Brown's "Angels and Demons."
A Cold War-era construct from the 1950s, CERN was in part formed to get European nations working together again in the spirit of science. Today, much of CERN's drama centers on the Large Hadron Collider, a $10 billion particle accelerator buried 30 stories below green pastures 20 minutes west of Geneva.
Switched on in 2008, the machine made headlines for what it could potentially do - create mini black holes, even search for new dimensions - and for what it could not - which was, namely, work. Ten days after starting operations, it broke down, forcing a costly refit of its super magnets and towering circuitry that funnel along a 17-mile circular track.
Fully functional since only last March, the collider was already scheduled to go down in 2012 for year-long upgrades, leaving the center's other eight particle accelerators for its 2,000-plus researchers to work with. But with European governments now demanding budget cuts of $135 million over five years, Heuer made the decision to put all the accelerators on hiatus.
Delaying the projects for a year, he said, would avoid the need to eliminate them and give scientists time to review mountains of data collected this year and next.
The 2012 shutdown will be even more severe than the last time the center powered down many experiments in 2005, also for budgetary reasons. "Do we want to do this? No," Heuer said. "But it's the best option I had."
Reactions here have ranged from grudging acceptance to frustration. Inside a warehouse-like lab in the heart of CERN, for instance, scientists are tantalizingly close to achieving a milestone - the ability to trap an atom of antimatter long enough to study it, getting closer to an understanding of why so much of it disappeared at the dawn of time, leaving matter to spread across the universe instead.
If the project has not succeeded by the end of 2011, the 12-month delay, researchers say, will seem like an eternity, too.
"It's like a 50-meter race where the runners are told to stop running," said Michael Doser, a leading antimatter research physicist at CERN. "You can imagine what that does to the race."
Staff writer Marc Kaufman in Washington contributed to this report.