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Cutting-edge UK science facilities going unused

Scientific instruments that cost millions of pounds are standing idle in the UK because of a lack of money to run them, a new parliamentary report has revealed. There is a “damaging disconnect” between funding to build new facilities and the funding to actually run them, it concluded. This includes spending nearly £40 million on high performance computers, without budgeting for the electricity they use.

The report’s authors, a cross-party group of politicians in the House of Lords, are demanding that the government review its funding for large scientific infrastructure sites after conducting a wide ranging inquiry into the subject.

The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee cites examples such as the ISIS site in Oxfordshire, which produces beams of neutrons and muons that researchers use to probe the properties of materials. It has recently been operating for 120 days per year, down from a previous level of 180 days, despite only marginal cost saving from such truncated hours.

In evidence to the inquiry John Womersley, chief executive of the Science and Technology Facilities Council which oversees much of the UK’s government-owned science infrastructure, said: “It has been difficult to invest in the routine maintenance and upkeep of existing facilities, because [government] ministers very naturally are interested in new initiatives and transformative change in entirely new projects.”

Another example cited by the committee are the high performance computers at the Hartree Centre near Manchester. These were set up in 2012 with £37.5 million of government funding but the government has not provided enough money to run them, according to the committee’s report. Womersley told the committee that running the new computers at the Hartree Centre had come with “a significant electricity bill that we had not anticipated”.

In their report — released today — the committee says: “There is substantial evidence of a damaging disconnect between capital investment and the funding for operational costs.” They recommend that capital investment and operational funding should be “tied together in one sustainable package”.

The committee says it is broadly positive about the country’s science infrastructure, but its chair Lord Krebs notes that poor long-term planning places at risk the current excellent reputation of sites like ISIS. “The lack of a strategy and an investment plan risks the UK’s place at the forefront of scientific research,” he said in a statement.

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