The national synchrotron: ray of hope or ring of fire?

By Tanya Hollis
Monday, 17 June, 2002

When the Victorian Government derailed the national synchrotron bidding process by announcing in June 2001 it would go it alone, it caught many people off guard.

Some praised the move as another sign of the state's commitment to biotechnology, while others thought it an ill-advised step causing Victoria to effectively forfeit $50 million in Federal money for the project.

In announcing the bold decision, Premier Steve Bracks described the project as "the most exciting and significant science infrastructure investment in Australia for decades".

Bracks also committed up to $100 million towards the synchrotron, which is pegged for completion by 2007 at an estimated total cost of $157 million.

But it is this financial commitment - described by the State opposition as the government putting all its science eggs in one basket - which has raised eyebrows in several quarters.

Biotech industry representatives want to know how that $100 million will be used and want to see the government's justification for pouring more than a third of its total technology budget for 2001/2 into the synchrotron.

They, and the opposition, also want to know where the private money will come from to make up the balance or whether the state will ultimately have to pitch in the rest itself.

Indeed, an Auditor-General's report released last week warned of the need for comprehensive financial risk management of the facility.

But question Innovation Minister John Brumby on the relevance and importance of an Australian synchrotron and he bristles, saying he finds it insulting anyone in the science community would question the need for such a facility.

Simultaneous experiments

The National Synchrotron, to be built at Monash University, will be a hollow ring of about 60 metres diameter and initially housing nine beamlines, each capable of performing independent experiments simultaneously.

A synchrotron uses a particle accelerator to project electrons to the speed of light, causing them to release bursts of light that scatter when aimed at particles of test material set up at beamline work stations.

This light scattering process - which can be tuned across the electromagnetic spectrum from infra-red and ultra-violet to x-rays - enables researchers to see the molecular structure of materials.

According to Dr Richard Garrett, facility director of the Australian Synchrotron Research Program, about 120 Australian teams travel overseas each year to use synchrotrons for projects ranging from structural biology, drug development and environmental studies through to examinations of archaeological artefacts and even dental structures.

The ASRP, funded until 2007 under the Major National Research Facilities program, provides guaranteed access to the Australian National Beamline Facility (ANBF) at the Photon Factory, Japan, and the Advanced Photon Source, in Chicago, USA, with financial backing for the so-called suitcase scientists awarded through a peer-reviewed proposal system.

Garrett said projection reports had indicated the local synchrotron user community would expand from about 350 researchers today to about 1200 by the time the National Synchrotron is built, with demand steadily increasing in the years following its completion.

"Our project folds in very neatly time-wise, so there should be a good transition," he said of the 2007 funding cut-off for the ASRP. "The Australian synchrotron is not going to do everything people want, and we anticipate five to 10 per cent will still need to go overseas, so there may be some residue overseas access program through us."

Rate of growth

Chairman of the Australian Academy of Science's National Committee for Crystallography, Prof John White, said that as recently as 1994 the science community deemed that Australia did not need a synchrotron.

"We made a decision at that time that we would build the community via access to overseas facilities," White said. "Since that time, the rate of growth of the user community has been strong."

He said that while in 1992 only five to 10 people conducted research requiring synchrotrons, his committee's most recent census in 1999 had revealed a group of about 150 Australian users. The projections to 2007 are slightly more conservative than Garrett's at 800 to 900, and assume funding for science stays at the same rate.

White believes the price tag on the finished synchrotron would be closer to $200 million and says the running costs for such a facility are in the order of 10 to 15 per cent of capital costs.

The Victorian government has said it has based its costing of the project on a similar one in Saskatchewan, Canada, that is set to open next year at a cost of $US175 million. It has also indicated it is hopeful that the Federal government will come to the party to pitch in some of the maintenance costs, with National Synchrotron Project director Garry Seaborne confirming a Federal representative attended a recent meeting of the scientific advisory committee.

But Australia's chief scientist, Dr Robin Batterham, said the state should not hold its breath, adding that the Federal government's science budget was "pretty fully committed this financial year".

He said the ability to plug the $57 million gap would be affected by an identification of who the facility's users would be, and how many of those using offshore machines would shift to the local synchrotron. "People should not be running around with the notion that because the Federal government exists, money will flow," Batterham said.

"What I have thought more likely is that some agencies like the CSIRO are going to be looking at their requirements for the synchrotron and be putting in place budgetary considerations for coming together to create single beamline collaborations."

The chief executive officer of independent policy forum The Eureka Project, Tony Cutcliffe, is even more dismal in his view of how the extra funds might be sourced.

"The decision to build the synchrotron would have been a good national decision, but as far as a state decision goes, we will inevitably be faced with the need to put more state money into it or roll it into an institute, who would then own it," Cutcliffe said. "I think the Victorian government was ill-advised to pre-empt a very cooperative national approach that had been developed as part of the bidding process for national funding."

He also doubts the facility will be built for less than $200 million, and said it was widely accepted that in order to break-even the Australian synchrotron would need far higher usage rates than any of the other 40 facilities worldwide.

Cutcliffe said that while the forecast local user community in 2007 was about 1000, there was no guarantee they would opt for the Australian facility, especially if it ended up costing more than using overseas.

"There is no shortage of overseas synchrotrons vying for business, so an Australian synchrotron has to be dirt cheap so people would not go anywhere else, and it also has to be accessible," he said.

Leap of faith

"I think there's giant leap of faith between some of the projections from the government in terms of demand, the cost of building and cost of running it and I think that for the amount of money involved, the public is entitled to much better detail about how the government has arrived at its conclusions."

According to a PricewaterhouseCoopers study commissioned by the Commonwealth Government in 2000, an Australian synchrotron is expected to generate 440 jobs and contribute $700 million to the local economy over 25 years.

An agreement last month between Bracks and New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark to have a Kiwi scientist on the scientific advisory committee is also hoped to encourage a trans-Tasman flow of researchers to use the facility.

But it is the cost and hard-data justifications for the mammoth project that continue to concern detractors, despite the state government's insistence it has the information but that it is commercial in confidence.

In April, almost a year after the announcement Victoria would run with the synchrotron, Macquarie Bank was named financial adviser to the project with a brief that included developing a financial model based on "whole life" costs, demand analysis, the identification of potential users, risk costings and options for private sector involvement.

According to opposition technology and innovation spokesman Victor Perton, these are things that should have been finalised before the state decided to snare the project.

Perton said that on top of the $2 million "wasted" by the state in withdrawing its bid for Federal funding, and as a consequence forgoing the $50 million in Commonwealth backing on offer, the roll-out of the National Synchrotron project was displaying the government's poor planning and lack of business credentials.

Pointing to the Auditor-General's report that warned of a major cash shortfall if proper planning and appropriate long-term revenue projection were put in place, Perton said taxpayers could expect to foot the bill for the entire cost of building and operating the facility.

"The Synchrotron is a an important piece of national science infrastructure... however, common sense holds that sound business planning and backing is all the difference between success and failure," he said.

"The Auditor-General's report independently confirms what we already knew: that the Bracks government has been misguided in its planning and does not understand the fundamentals of bankrolling projects such as the Synchrotron."

Garry Seaborne, appointed project director after more than three years managing the replacement research reactor at Lucas Heights, said he was not concerned by the funding gap and expected to have a clearer picture by next month.

"What I can say is it's not unusual on a project of this type where you have a not insignificant part of the cost relating to the beamlines end to have a shortfall in funding," Seaborne said.

"Obviously you'd like to have all the funding stitched up as early as possible but it is no great concern to me."

Seaborne said that while signage would go up and the first sod will be turned in September, building in earnest will not commence until March next year.

He said he was currently meeting with user groups and also planned to visit some overseas facilities to cement the types of beamlines researchers will require, get a better idea of design needs and a firm grip on the building and running costs.

"I have no reason to believe that [$157 million] is not a reasonable figure at the moment," Seaborne said.

"When you start a project there are always going to be plusses or minuses, but I have no reason to believe that's not a reasonable figure."

Seaborne said that while Victoria took "considered action" on opting to build the synchrotron alone, it remained a national project and the challenge now was to work with the states and the commonwealth to maximise its benefits.

"The most important aspect is to understand what users require and build something that will have user acceptance in the scientific and industrial user communities," he said.

"My single objective is not just building a synchrotron, but to ensure that whatever we build gains the widest possible level of user acceptance."

The big project manager

Until recently, National Synchrotron Project director Garry Seaborne was stretching himself across two high-profile jobs.

Since December he'd spend the week in Melbourne preparing the groundwork for the $157 million synchrotron, and on weekends he'd be up at Lucas Heights putting the finishing touches on the replacement research reactor where he had worked for the past three years. Before that he had spent almost 11 years with Transfield where he headed the bid to build the ANZAC frigate, so he reckons he's pretty well equipped to handle major projects.

Seaborne, 56, who began his latest post on March 4, said he was drawn by the challenge of starting a new project as well as the fact that it was situated closer to family in Melbourne. He said he was currently busy gaining an appreciation of what has already been done and what needs to happen to give the project momentum.

Among his priorities are visiting overseas facilities and talking with facility operators and suppliers of systems and sub-systems to see how they are tracking and what lessons have been learned.

Seaborne is also keen to get a good handle on the project costs, but said he had no reason to believe there'd be a blowout from the current estimate of $157 million.

"I am running through the exercise at the moment to validate the price... towards the end of the month I will have a better idea," he said. "When you start a project there are always going to be plusses or minuses, but I have no reason to believe ($157 million is) not a reasonable figure."

Seaborne said it was important to him that people realised this was a national - not a Victorian - project. "It is not seeking to sell itself as a national project - it is a national project and it is one that will reside in Victoria," he said.

"The fact it is here or Queensland or South Australia doesn't matter, the focus must be national. "Victoria took considered action and Victoria will now build the synchrotron and do so successfully. The challenge now is to work with the states and the Commonwealth to maximise the benefits of the project."

Within the coming six months, Seaborne said he hoped to ramp up the project by confirming the design and method of delivery in terms of the sorts of beamlines the synchrotron would house.

Later this month the International Machinery Advisory Committee will meet with National Synchrotron science advisory committee and architect engineer to view its progress.

In September the first sod will be turned, signs and a visitor information centre will be set up at the Monash site and the team also hopes to move into offices on location. Seaborne said construction was set to begin towards the end of March next year.

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