Although my early-stage research career was mostly ‘laboratory-bound’ (see here for example) almost all of the last 35 years or so have been spent within the world of major national/international research facilities. I’ve already written a little about the associated ‘joys’ of what a former colleague labelled as suitcase science (here) and have alluded, many times, to the science and the partnerships that came out of it (e.g. here and here) – but I want here to talk about the facilities themselves. One of Spike Milligan’s many irreverently witty books had the title “Adolf Hitler: my part in his downfall”; what I intend here is more along the lines Major Research Facilities: my (very small) part in their success.
The obvious first issue is to define what ‘facilities are. I suspect the answer to such a question, were it to be posed, would vary a little from one scientist to another and certainly from one field of endeavour to another. However, in my area – the study of materials – one would be describing research equipment of a scale larger than could sensibly be provided at a level less than national, and more often than not at a multi-national level. Thus, within a financial, managerial and administrative framework appropriate for a large-scale project, there will typically be a purpose-built suite of instruments, and their associated support systems, which all rely in one way or another on a major central or core instrument. For example, one might have an electron accelerator at the core with many specialised instruments utilising the intense beams of x-rays and other light which it generates; the UK’s Diamond Light Source is one such facility. Thus, a facility will comprise many instruments, each with a sizable community of scientists/engineers who’ll compete for access in furtherance of their respective research team’s needs: hence the title (which is, I hasten to add, a phrase coined by others). I have both used such facilities, in the UK and elsewhere, and helped in their development and their strategic management. However, it would be a rather laborious – perhaps downright tedious – post were I to attempt to cover all this in detail; so, first a synopsis and then maybe an example or two …
A common factor in the successful management of the x-ray and neutron facilities I’ve had such a close professional relationship with is that, on a day-to-day basis, they are run by scientists, technicians and engineers who understand why they are there and not just how they ‘tick’. I should know, for four years in the early ‘80s I was one of the ‘beamline scientists’ at the UK’s neutron source ISIS and designed installed and commissioned one of its very first suite of instruments (aka beamlines); more of this later. Since then, I have been a member of, or have chaired, committees and advisory bodies charged with considering both tactical and strategic choices in relation to facilities both in the UK and elsewhere in Europe. (I wrote previously about some of my experiences with committees: the good, the bad and the ugly; see here.) Furthermore I have been instrumental, if you’ll forgive the pun, in several proposals for new instruments/beamlines; more often than not this involved working closely with a whole community of fellow scientists – each of us contributing our expertise towards the common goal. Some of these proposals came to fruition in a fairly direct fashion, others had the effect of spurring the relevant facility into action by identifying a scientific need, and others simply fell by the wayside as better and stronger proposals emerged from elsewhere. In passing, I might record the fact that ‘failed’ bids are always a disappointment; it always hurts a little, but it’s a necessary part of the scientific life to applaud the proposal our peers regard as better (exactly as we must the theory or data or ideas that go beyond, or improve and therefore supplant, our own).
Although I’ve alluded to this part of my career before (e.g. here, third figure/caption) I’ll share a little more of my distinctly hands-on involvement with one particular beamline: the electron-volt spectrometer, eVS. This was my workplace ‘baby’, a term employed in the conscious remembrance of the fact that both my daughter and then my son enjoyed their own respective baby months as the project unfolded. Undertaking the scientific specification, overseeing the engineering design, tendering for construction, the assembly, testing and evaluation took almost three years. Included within this, and ‘helped’ by government budget cuts at the time which ‘encouraged’ me and others to offset costs by working out of the UK, my family and I went on an extended secondment to the USA – taking my newly-delivered eVS with us in a pair of huge wooden crates. After 15 months, the eVS returned and was duly installed within its beamline; as this was the last of the so-called ‘Day 1’ instruments for ISIS and someone realised that none of the earlier installations had been filmed, the event was recorded for posterity within an in-house documentary film on the ISIS facility’s construction. The 15s clip is shown near the head of the post (with the permission of the STFC, who currently run the UK’s major research facilities). The remainder of the post hereafter is told using a storyboard of images and their captions: it is the tale of how one particular beamline, mine, came to be.
P.s. I moved from ISIS to the University of Kent in 1985, but eVS continued to be developed by my successor. A while after he himself moved on to new pastures, and the decision was taken to re-work the beamline in its entirety. I was a little sad to see all my work ‘scrapped’, but I agreed entirely with their decision and went on to support and applaud the excellent science that came from the new instrument (see here). One of the things that make facilities like ISIS and Diamond world-class is the continual commitment of their staff and their user-community towards innovation and the desire to move forward – that, it seems to me, is a fact worthy of support and applause.
Earlier posts in this series:
1) The Girt Pike – beginnings and transitions.
2) Do Labels Last a Lifetime? – people and other influences.
3) Nomadic Research: random walk or purposeful journey? – a timeline in research.
4) Tools of the Trade – instruments and gadgets.
5) Suitcase Science: travelling in hope – tales from a travelling scientist.
6) Why so many? – gender balance in the research team
7) Committees: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly – making things work: discussion, consensus and decision?