After nearly five years of operation at a cost of at least A$600 million (US$620 million), the Australian synchrotron faced being shut down as money was about to run out. But an announcement on Wednesday by the federal and Victorian governments of a $95 million injection means the nation’s prized scientific asset will be able to continue.
Under a joint federal-state agreement, the federal government will provide $69 million and the Victorian state government $26 million. New Zealand has given in-principle advice that it will contribute to the running costs over the next four years.
The two Australian cash-strapped governments will not allocate new money to the synchrotron but instead redirect their share from other sources. The federal government’s contribution will come from the budgets of its various research agencies and this ultimately means universities and their academics will lose millions in research grants.
The Australian synchrotron was built at a cost of $220 million and is located on a large area of land opposite Monash University’s main campus in Melbourne. It uses particle accelerators to produce a beam of high-energy electrons. These, in turn, create ‘synchrotron light’, which can then be directed at material to probe its composition at atomic level.
More than 40 synchrotrons have been built around the world and countries with the machines include Britain, China, France, Japan, Germany Spain, Korea, Thailand and the United States.
One of the advantages of synchrotron light is that it covers the full spectrum from infra-red to X-ray wavelengths with a brilliance and ‘tunability’ that allows researchers to select the wavelength they need for a particular experiment.
Since officially opening its doors in July 2007, the Melbourne synchrotron has been used by more than 2,500 scientists and other researchers using its state-of-the-art beamlines. In a submission to a federal inquiry last year, synchrotron officials said access to the facility by international researchers would not be funded beyond 2012.
“We recommend that this international access programme, along with access to other facilities, be renewed,” the submission stated.
“Less than 25% of the light from the synchrotron is being used [so] it is an under-utilised resource. An analogy might be that of a hospital with only 25% of its beds operational; this would not be sensibly regarded as a ‘funded capability’. The evidence is in that additional resourcing to the synchrotron provides an excellent scientific return on its investment.”
Federal Science Minister Senator Chris Evans visited the synchrotron to announce the aid package from the two governments. Evans said the funding would allow the facility to continue conducting 500 experiments a year.
“Without this funding deal, the ongoing operation of the facility was in doubt, jeopardising important research here in Australia,” he said.
Research conducted at the synchrotron was cutting edge and spanned the science spectrum from medicine to manufacturing. It had already laid the foundations for the development of a new class of anti-malarial drugs; identified the distributions of nutrients in cereal grains that could help improve the nutritional value of foods; and helped develop an energy-efficient, high-temperature superconductor that could be used in motors, generators and transformers.
Evans said the facility also conducted research on behalf of major companies, including Rio Tinto, BHP Billiton and Cochlear.
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