France Takes Share in British Synchrotron

France has all but abandoned its plans to build a new, state-of-the-art synchrotron facility, called SOLEIL, which had been on the drawing board for 8 years. Today, the French government announced that it will instead invest heavily in a new synchrotron to be built in the United Kingdom, together with the British government and the Wellcome Trust, a London-based charity. That decision makes it "very unlikely" that plans for SOLEIL will be realized, French science minister Claude Allègre told ScienceNOW. French scientists, who favored having their own facility on French soil, are disappointed.

Materials scientists and biologists use synchrotrons to probe molecules with powerful x-ray beams. They can determine a compound's atomic structure from diffraction patterns produced when x-rays scatter off its internal atoms. SOLEIL, a 106-meter-diameter ring whose location in France was yet to be decided, would have given French scientists their own third-generation x-ray source. But Allègre had hinted several times that, with several other European synchrotrons to be available in the next decade, the $180 million project would be redundant. Instead, he has now opted to become a partner in DIAMOND, a new synchrotron ring to be constructed in Britain. The French and British governments and the Wellcome Trust will each donate $57 million over the next 7 years to build the machine, plus $10 million to $13 million yearly to operate it. Each will get an equal share of the facility's "beamlines."

Allègre says his decision was inspired by the need to further European scientific cooperation. "Of course, there are financial reasons [as well], but they are second to my wish to build a European [scientific] community," Allègre says. "I will not approve large French projects anymore, my priorities are European instruments." France's participation in DIAMOND, added to its use of the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) in Grenoble, and LURE, an older x-ray source in Orsay, will guarantee the country's researchers access to x-ray beams, Allègre asserts.

But French scientists disagree, arguing that the decision may stifle future research projects. Besides, says Yves Petroff, director-general of ESRF and a member of SOLEIL's scientific council, using several European facilities will drive up travel and other costs and may eventually be more expensive than SOLEIL would have been. "This decision has been taken only by the minister, and the scientific community has not been involved," says Petroff. "We have been kept completely outside of it."