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
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 £s 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.