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European Big Science

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Science  19 Dec 2008:
Vol. 322, Issue 5909, pp. 1769
DOI: 10.1126/science.322.5909.1769

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In September, when the first beams circulated through the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), Europe's giant particle accelerator near Geneva, Switzerland, media outlets were quick to name a winner. “Europe leaps ahead on physics frontier” ran a story on MSNBC.com, and a blog trumpeted “LHC a sure sign that Europe is the center of physics.” The electrical fault that put the LHC out of action just days after its inauguration didn't change the overall picture.

That success was bittersweet for U.S. particle physicists, whose own machine, the Superconducting Super Collider, was canceled in 1993. By most objective measures, U.S. research still leads the world, but in their ability to pool resources in the pursuit of “big science,” European nations are showing increasing ambition and success.

CERN is the model of a pan-European laboratory. Formed in 1953 to help rebuild postwar European science and encourage international cooperation, the facility became a guiding light for European particle physics and spurred other fields to follow suit. The next few decades saw the creation of the Institut Laue-Langevin neutron source, the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, the European Space Agency, the European Southern Observatory, the Joint European Torus, and the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF). But after the agreement to build ESRF in 1984, the enthusiasm for joint European ventures faded.

That situation has changed this decade, however. First off, the European Union (E.U.) decided that it wanted to host ITER, the worldwide reactor project that aims to prove nuclear fusion as a viable power source. During much of 2004 and 2005, the E.U. was locked in a staring match with Japan over whose site should take the honor. Determined shuttle diplomacy and a face-saving formula put together by E.U. officials finally paid off, and ITER is now under construction at Cadarache in southern France. Such is Europe's confidence in the project that when Congress zeroed out the U.S. contribution to ITER from its 2008 budget, managers in Cadarache barely broke step.

The E.U. didn't stop there. In 2002, it created the European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures (ESFRI), which set about drawing up a list of projects worthy of E.U. support. The ESFRI Roadmap, published in October 2006, lists 35 projects, which include a database on population aging and a neutrino observatory on the Mediterranean seabed. The E.U. didn't have money to build the projects. But it did have money to support design studies and asked all the Roadmap's nominated projects to apply—and nearly all of them did. The aim of the cash is to “get the projects to a point where a political decision can be made” on whether to build, says materials scientist John Wood of Imperial College London, who was chair of ESFRI at the time.

CREDIT: CERN

The ESFRI Roadmap and E.U. infrastructure funding have given a number of projects a major push toward becoming reality. This year, the European XFEL, an x-ray light source, and the Facility for Antiproton and Ion Research, both in Germany, have enlisted international partners for construction, and both expect to sign conventions by early next year. The European Spallation Source, proposed in the early 1990s, now has three sites vying to host it, and a decision—in part brokered by ESFRI—is expected this month. A final design for the Aurora Borealis, a ground-breaking polar research ship, was also released this month. And this autumn, groups of European astronomers and astroparticle physicists have published their own road maps, listing potentially world-leading instruments such as the European Extremely Large Telescope and the Cherenkov Telescope Array. “I'm absolutely staggered at how influential [the Roadmap] has been,” says Wood.

As this issue went to press, ESFRI was about to release a revised road map, updating its original effort and including some fields that were omitted before. European scientists are eager to see where it leads.

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