BBC News

UK joins 'super-microscope' project

By Pallab Ghosh
Science correspondent, BBC News

image copyrightESS
image captionSuper-microscope: The UK is to help build the European Spallation Source - a new facility in Sweden

The UK government has allocated £290m for new international science projects.

The Science Minister David Willetts will earmark £165m to join a project to build a "super-microscope" in Sweden

He will also pledge up to £100m to build the largest telescope ever built in South Africa and Australia.

Critics warn that spending on projects that bring economic benefits to the UK must not be at the expense of basic research.

Mr Willetts has said that he wants the UK to be at the forefront of some of the world's leading scientific projects.

"This (investment) will enable us to become involved with and take a lead in major international research programmes," he said. "It will help create new industries and new jobs."

However, Dr Sarah Main of the Campaign for Science and Engineering (Case) said that equipment and resources to carry out basic science in the UK should be prioritised as highly as big international science projects.

"After a number of years of tight finances, universities are feeling quite squeezed in their ability to provide good facilities on site and keep their facilities going," she told BBC News.

Mr Willetts has agreed to participate in a project called the European Spallation Source, which is to be built in Lund, Sweden. Essentially, the ESS will be a powerful microscope that examines materials using particles called neutrons. When built, its role will be to discover new materials for planes, ships and batteries for electric cars.

He has committed approximately £100m to the construction of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), a radio telescope array across South Africa and Australia and £25m to participate in a European Space Agency mission called Plato - a giant space telescope designed to find and understand other planets capable of supporting extraterrestrial life.

image copyrightSKA
image captionThe UK's involvement with the Square Kilometre Array will lead to new skills in processing and storing large amounts of data

All three investments are likely to result in commercial contracts, which Mr Willetts hopes will lead to the creation of high technology skills and jobs in the UK.

Deep cuts

Mr Willetts's cash injections are possible because of a commitment by the Treasury in June last year to fund so-called capital expenditure to the tune of £1.1bn each year for the next five years. This money is for building, equipping and maintaining laboratories and for subscriptions to international projects such as membership of Cern on the Swiss-French border.

The boost in capital was to compensate for deep cuts made by the coalition government to the capital budget for science, which was nearly halved in the Chancellor's first Autumn Statement in 2010.

Since then, Mr Willetts has persuaded George Osborne to top up the capital budget with a series of one off investments, such as the creation of a new graphene research centre in Manchester.

Haldane principle

The investments were welcomed in the scientific community, but there was concern over a perceived lack of strategic planning.

There was also a worry the government was funding "pet projects" and undermining the so-called Haldane principle, which states that science funding should be determined by the scientific merit of research proposals, rather than by ministers.

Now with a long-term commitment to capital expenditure, science funding bodies believe that they can adopt a more strategic approach to funding research proposals.

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