Europe’s user facilities find strength in numbers

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23 Jan 2019 in Politics & Policy

Photon, neutron, and electron sources are formalizing their existing collaborations to make the most of money and know-how.

Toni Feder

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LEAPS members
The directors of 16 of Europe’s synchrotron light sources and free-electron lasers gather at a meeting in November. Robert-Jan Smits (in front of sign, right), European Commission director for research and innovation, is shaking hands with DESY director Helmut Dosch. ALBA director Caterina Biscari is second from right. Credit: DESY

European science facilities are forming networks to tighten bonds and increase clout. Taking as a model the League of European Accelerator-Based Photon Sources (LEAPS), which was launched in November 2017, the League of Advanced European Neutron Sources (LENS) will debut in March. Electron microscope facilities are in discussions to form a similar alliance.

Synchrotron x-ray sources and free-electron lasers have always collaborated, but not in a coordinated way, says LEAPS founder Helmut Dosch, director of the German Electron Synchrotron (DESY) in Hamburg. Now, he says, the facilities will jointly develop methods, instruments, and data-management approaches; avoid duplication; and communicate with policymakers and funding agencies. So far 16 national and international synchrotron light sources and free-electron lasers in 10 countries have joined LEAPS, and SESAME in Jordan recently came on as an associate member.

More than 25 000 scientists use Europe’s light sources. The users cut across physics, chemistry, biology, geoscience, medicine, archaeology, and cultural heritage. Working together, Dosch says, the labs will aim for “smart specialization, with different labs implementing complex, highly dedicated instrumentation according to the needs of academia and industry.” For example, some labs may focus on macromolecular crystallography while others emphasize catalysis.

Last November the LEAPS partners approved a first draft of a road map for their field and selected six pilot technology projects totaling €10 million ($11 million), for which the league will apply for funding from the European Commission. The projects include the joint development of detectors, optics, data management, and sample-positioning concepts.

Dosch says that forming LEAPS was a natural step but required moving forward carefully. In agreeing to a common vision and ambition, the lab directors had to listen to and understand one another’s views. “Providing capacity, avoiding unnecessary duplication, and maintaining healthy competition among the labs is a tricky balance,” he says. Through the league, says Caterina Biscari, head of the ALBA synchrotron in Barcelona, Spain, “we will try to optimize resources and define a strategy. We will get more for the same effort.”

Taking a cue from LEAPS, neutron sources are also joining forces, “largely because the pressure of funding is strong and the portfolio is broad,” says Helmut Schober, head of the Institut Laue-Langevin (ILL) in Grenoble, France. Neutron sources provide services to a wide range of users, from physicists trying to understand dark matter to biologists studying materials. The aim of LENS, he says, “is to have all neutron sources that have an international user base collaborate on a strategy, so we can offer better service to the user community, especially for future investments.”

John Womersley, director general of the European Spallation Source (ESS) under construction in Lund, Sweden, notes that a major transition is underway in the neutron-scattering landscape. Many older reactor sources are closing, and “the remaining national sources need to become more European,” he says. “We don’t want a messy transition, and we can’t replace or duplicate all the instruments. LENS is coming up with ways to manage this transition.” Besides ILL and ESS, reactor sources in France, Germany, Hungary, Norway, Switzerland, and the UK have joined LENS.

Following suit in league formation, though still at an early stage, are electron microscope facilities. Cryogenic electron microscopes cost far less than light or neutron sources, but they are still out of range for many individual universities. A consortium will help labs share facilities and jointly develop instruments, says Etienne Snoeck, director of the Centre d’Élaboration de Matériaux et d’Études Structurales in Toulouse, France. So far about 15 facilities plan to participate.

The immediate goal for the electron microscopy community is to coordinate with synchrotron light sources to facilitate studying samples with both x rays and electrons. “Synchrotron radiation laboratories have realized that having an electron microscope near their beam lines is a huge advantage,” Snoeck says. Pairing electron and light sources would be good for electron microscope operators and users too, he adds.

Both the national research ministries and the European Commission support the facilities’ self-organization. “It’s reassuring for every ministry to know that their euros are spent in the best way,” says Dosch. “And when you ask 16 labs what should be done, you get 17 answers. It’s added value to have one voice that can provide coherent policy advice.”

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