News of the Week

Top French Researchers Spar Over Synchrotron

Science  10 Mar 2000:
Vol. 287, Issue 5459, pp. 1732b-1733b
DOI: 10.1126/science.287.5459.1732b

PARISA lively and often heated debate broke out last week among some of France's top scientists over plans to scuttle a major French synchrotron radiation facility and instead back a joint venture across the English Channel. But for all their oratorical fireworks, the scientists, who spoke at a parliamentary hearing, were essentially haggling over a possible consolation prize: whether France should build a second, smaller synchrotron facility on its own soil.

Scientists use x-rays produced by synchrotrons to probe the atomic structure of proteins and other compounds. French researchers had been counting on getting an advanced x-ray source, the long-planned SOLEIL facility, until research minister Claude Allègre canceled the project last year. Instead, Allègre opted for French partnership in a new synchrotron to be built with the British government and the Wellcome Trust, the mammoth British medical charity (Science, 6 August 1999, p. 819). Allègre's decision has become a flash point for protestors unhappy with his research priorities.

A French parliamentary commission, which has been examining Allègre's decision to pull the plug on SOLEIL, organized the 2 March roundtable at the National Assembly. The forum was the last step before the commission, headed by National Assembly deputy Christian Cuvilliez and Senate member René Trégouët, releases its report later this month. But the odds have grown vanishingly small that the panel will recommend canceling what some French researchers sarcastically call the “Franco-Wellco-British” synchrotron. “The negotiations are too far along” to put a stop to the project, Cuvilliez told Science.

The debate got off to a rollicking start when Nobel laureate Pierre-Gilles de Gennes, a physicist with the Collége de France, questioned the importance of synchrotron facilities. While “the machines are useful,” de Gennes said, “if we are speaking of major unexpected discoveries made during the last 15 years, the result is practically nothing.” These remarks drew a blistering response. Roger Fourme, head of biology at LURE, an aging x-ray source at Orsay that Allègre wants to shut down in the next few years, rattled off a list of proteins whose structures have recently been solved using synchrotron radiation. And Yves Petroff, director-general of the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) in Grenoble, complained that “de Gennes has not kept up with what is going on in this field,” adding that research done at ESRF has been featured on the covers of Science and Nature four times since the facility went online in 1994.

Whatever the field's intrinsic value, others defended Allègre's decision to join forces with the British. “If SOLEIL had been constructed, it would have had half of the capacity the new synchrotron will have,” said geophysicist Vincent Courtillot, research director at the French science ministry. Besides, he said, SOLEIL's price tag—estimated at between $160 million and $300 million—would have taken too big a bite out of the ministry's budget when it's straining to fund new positions for young scientists and to boost basic lab budgets.

On the other hand, Courtillot said, the government is “absolutely open” to the idea of building a smaller synchrotron in France, although he insisted that any such decision must be made in consultation with European partners. This attitude won approval from Nobel laureate Georges Charpak, a physicist at the CERN accelerator facility near Geneva. “It is clear that Europe is behind Japan and the United States in synchrotron radiation,” Charpak said. “But does this mean we should catch up country by country?”

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