Why we need Neutrons for science

So you may not know it, but one of the world’s premier scientific research facilities is in Oxfordshire.

Its not the University of Oxford I am referring to, but the ISIS neutron and muon source at Rutherford Appleton Lab outside of Didcot. This facility (along with the Diamond Light Source (X-rays) and others) is grouped under something called ‘Large Facilities’, funded by the UK government under the auspices of STFC – Science and Technology Facilities Council.

ISIS beam hall
ISIS beam hall

As the name suggests, ISIS produces neutrons (and muons). It isn’t a nuclear reactor, it provides neutrons for research. Neutrons can be used (like X-rays) to probe the structure and motions of things on an atomic level. You can see atoms move and how they are placed. How cool is that? Atoms. We can see atoms with neutrons (something that is impossible with any kind of microscope).

Neutrons are also used to look at stress and strain in materials. This may not sound so sexy but don’t you think you want to know if that airplane wing has hairline fractures? About the only way you can ‘see’ this is neutrons. Neutrons are also used to investigate the structure of piezoelectric materials. Again, this may not sound sexy, but piezoelectric materials are what make your iPhone work.

I use neutrons to look at biological stuff. It is a major part of my research, I look at water (molecules!) around things like cell membranes and drugs trying to answer questions like ‘how does water get inside cells?’ I think the EPSRC calls it ‘The Physics of Life’. Is this sexy science? I obviously think so. Is this biological science? I would certainly say yes it is. It may not be what is ‘classically’ thought of as biology, but what is not more fundamental to life than what happens between atoms in your body?

Some people don’t think it is that my research has anything whatsoever to do with biology. They think it’s physics. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t, but does it really matter?

Yes it does. It shouldn’t, but it does. Why? Because people sometimes get the impression these Large Facilities like ISIS are just physicists playthings and that they only serve a very small community. They don’t, there is a huge variety of science goes on at ISIS from biology and medicine to chemistry and physics to archeometry (showing that ancient objects are indeed ancient and not fake!). Large facilities such as ISIS benefit not only basic science but research that directly effects most people’s lives – planes, iphones and water’s role in life.

So who cares what people think about your research? I do and we all should. Why? Because the impression that ISIS is just for physicists impacts funding decisions. It takes money to run Large Facilities. If you don’t spend the money these facilities shut down and this has potential impact for many, not just a few random physicists. Importantly, for all the bean counters out there, ISIS delivers good science. This isn’t just antecdotal. In the world where you must produce high impact science and A* papers for the govenrment to fund you, ISIS ticks all the boxes. It is good value for money.

ISIS has a number of allocated ‘beam days’. What that means is we in the (international!) scientific community write peer-reviewed proposals which if successful are awarded beam time. The experimental days allocated is dependent upon how many days ISIS runs. Historically ISIS has run around 120 to 40 days per year – this is equivalent to 600+ experiments.

With current spending cuts, ISIS is in danger of delivering less days. Loosing just 30 running days for ISIS is equivalent roughly to about 200 (or maybe more) lost experiments. On the surface this may seem like a ‘small price to pay’ in these days of austerity – where we all have pay freezes, more expensive booze and higher gas bills – but it is not a small price it is rather an enormous price and it’s economically silly.

It costs relatively little money to run for say 120 days versus 90 days, in fact its tiny in terms of big budgets. It’s roughly about 1.5 million more pounds. This sounds like alot, but it isn’t. The operating costs for running ISIS (and Diamond) is much more expensive than this and these basic operating costs have to be met. Coughing up the extra cash to run for 30 more days is miniscule. Trying to save costs by running less days is kind of equivalent to eating at a 4* Michelin restaurant and not getting the starter becuase you want to save a little money even though you still order the Dom Perinon. Cutting the ISIS budget in this way is political (the Government wants to look like it is saving money) rather than economical.

If less days just meant we all had to cut our experiments short by a day, I might could live with that, but this isn’t really how science works. An experiment is like a baby not like a loaf of bread (you can half a loaf a bread but not a baby) so everyone doesn’t get less time but rather full experiments are still run (and should be) but the consequence is that lots of good and essential science gets cut out in total. Importantly, this could have enormous impact on early career and unfunded researchers as well as scientific research in the long term future.

The ISIS proposal system allows people that aren’t currently funded to STILL DO EXPERIMENTS. I have a dog in this fight. I am funded by the EPSRC now. This funding is, in part, a result of me being able to still perform research at ISIS when I wasn’t funded. Cutting days will effect this. Moreover, if there is less over all time as researchers you will stick to ‘safe’ experiments, things that you are pretty sure you can publish. Blue skies research, which is the foundation of all future research, is cut leaving a more limited research base in 20 years time.

It is a small price to pay to fund ISIS to full capacity. A few more ┬ús for substantially more research. ISIS is important to so many disciplines it seems to me it is a cost effective way for a Government who says ‘do more with less’ and wants academics to share facilities and equipment to just give up the cash for the full allotment of ISIS beam days so that this can happen.

About Sylvia McLain

Girl, Interrupting aka Dr. Sylvia McLain used to be an academic, but now is trying to figure out what's next. She is also a proto-science writer, armchair philosopher, amateur plumber and wanna-be film-critic. You can follow her on Twitter @DrSylviaMcLain and Instagram @sylviaellenmclain
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5 Responses to Why we need Neutrons for science

  1. Laurence Cox says:

    I was at the Diamond light source yesterday for one of their open days celebrating their 10th anniversary. So my first question would be: does ISIS run open days when they show the public (who after all pay through their taxes for this) what they do? Secondly, while visiting some of the big US observatories last month it struck me that their volunteer guides always tell the visitors to write to their Congressmen to tell them what a good job the observatories are doing. We don’t seem to see the need to do the same. In fact while the group I was with was able to visit the Keck telescopes on Mauna Kea, UKIRT was quite uninterested in accepting visitors (even UK taxpayers) – if they had been more open to visitors a decade or more ago, perhaps UKIRT wouldn’t be closing down now.

    So, maybe academics need to think more about enlisting the support of the public, particularly those with science degrees who are working outside academia; not waiting until a crisis strikes, but as part of a long-term outreach policy.

    • Terry O'Connor says:

      Laurence, STFC does run both public and school open days offering tours for the general public (see http://stfc.ac.uk/Public%20and%20Schools/1309.aspx ) including of ISIS – as well as RAL Space, the Central Laser Facility and other areas at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory. As operating science facilities we do need to restrict the number of these – for operational and safety reasons – but are keen to ensure wide awareness of the fantastic science and technology on offer.
      In terms of direct lobbying, if members of the public, teachers or other visitors want to tell their Members of Parliament how fabulous our research is that’s great and we’d obviously welcome that support – but STFC is a publicly funded body and there are very strict government rules against taxpayer-funded organisations lobbying MPs.
      I’m interested in your visit to the Keck telescopes. Were there any health requirements or liability waivers? We have a very strict policy that any visitor to our telescopes in Hawaii has to have a clear heart check, due to the strain of going quite rapidly to altitude – and even with a clear heart check we insist on pausing on the way up.
      Terry O’Connor
      Head of Communications

      • Just to point out there was one in May – when is the next one?


      • Laurence Cox says:


        I understand that STFC employees cannot lobby. I expect that you are subject to Civil Service rules, but say you have an open day and Dr McLain is there, showing off her work. Are you telling me that she would be gagged from saying what she she can say freely in her blog here? The guides we had at the US observatories were volunteers (they call them docents) but I didn’t ask whether they were also employees of the observatory doing this on their days off.

        On the subject of UKIRT, there is an argument for making a distinction between, say, a visiting astronomer who may be coming up to the observatory for several nights and an organised tour group.

        For comparison, the Klein Matterhorn is 3883 m and the Aguille du Midi is 3842 m and people ski at these heights with no special precautions apart from a notice warning you about shortness of breath. We did have to sign a waiver, but as far as I could see it was no different from the waiver we signed for the tour of Hawaiian volcanoes. The minibus carried an oxygen bottle and we did stop at the Visitor’s Centre for nearly an hour on the way up. The Keck imposed no restrictions apart from keeping us out of the viewing gallery because they were testing the laser guide star (at 5 W visible laser light – I wouldn’t have gone in without appropriate laser eye protection).

        This is the link to Hawaii Forest and Trail if you want to follow it up:

  2. In the 1970s when doing my PhD, we had to use the then only facility for electron diffraction at UMIST in Manchester. Going from Edinburgh, we had to get on the train with liquid nitrogen in Dewars with some rather unstable silicon hydride, germanium hydride and fluorophosphine derivatives. We probably had an allocation of 3 to 4 days shared with other universities. We then got the plates, took them for scanning at the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh and after months of molecule modelling, managed to get the structure of novel compounds with bond lengths and angles. I mentioned this to a UCL post-doc who regularly does his experiments at ISIS and at Diamond. It seems so much easier today. I nearly fell off my chair when attending a study day at the Wallace Collection on Renaissance swords, when techniques such as XRF and neutron diffraction were mentioned. There is a scheme where the curatorial fraternity have 3 days allocation for neutron diffraction facilities. Sometimes the arts lobby can apply science for possible solutions to their own problems.

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