No Irish Synchrotron radiation (SR), free electron laser (FEL), neutron or muon beam (NB/MB) facility exists – this is for a very good reason as they require very substantial capital investment and operating costs – the ISUO is not suggesting that one should be built in Ireland.
Fortunately, science is an open process and Irish research groups can, in principle, access many of these facilities in other nations where most of these facilities are directly supported by their national governments.
How is this access achieved?
- Scientists can access the experimental equipment at these sources, whether synchrotron facilities, free electron laser facilities, or neutron source facilities, in principle by simply proposing to the facility to do an interesting and relevant experiment using the equipment at these facilities. These proposals are internationally peer reviewed and each proposal to use a specific “beamline” competes with proposals from other international groups who wish to use that same “beamline” at these facilities.
- Only those proposals which receive the highest ranking in a review process, representing those objectively determined to be excellent scientific proposals, are those that receive or are allocated time for their proposed experiments.
- The experimental time at these facilities is given “free of charge” to the successful user applicant, but actually represents a substantial investment of the resources of the facility (running costs, personnel costs) in the science proposed by the successful user. Thus for Irish research users allocation of time at these facilities this represents an inward investment into Irish research by the national facilities of other countries.
- One caveat or complication is that some facilities are in fact International Research Organisations that are established by intergovernmental treaties, such as the ESRF, XFEL, the EMBL, ILL, ESS and access to these by Irish researchers formally would require that Ireland is a member of the relevant organisation. Of these Ireland is only a member of the EMBL – the European Molecular Biology Laboratory.
Thus in principle there is a level playing field where the best scientists and those with the objectively determined best scientific proposals, whether from Ireland or from elsewhere, are allocated access and experimental time at these facilities and the specific dedicated purpose built “beamlines” that they have requested.
How do research groups fund their participation in experiments at these facilities?
Access also requires getting there to perform the experiment. Relatively few experiments can yet be performed remotely or simply by sending the sample though active strides are being made in all areas. The Irish researcher teams, as many others across the EU do, need to travel to these facilities to perform the experiment. How are these costs paid for?
- The costs of a team of Irish researchers accessing the facility, by travelling to, staying and working at these facilities for typically a week long experiment, is either borne by the user group through their research awards or, for a facility within the EU, had been supported by an Integrating Activity of the EU Framework programmes up until 2015 through what is known as EU Trans National Access (TNA) support.
- Many of the research groups listed here fund the majority of their access – the travel costs of their research team members to participate in these experiments – through their directly awarded research grants. These research awards have derived from the European Research Council, EU FP7 networks and collaborations, Science Foundation Ireland, the Wellcome Trust, Enterprise Ireland, National Science Foundation awards as well as from individual Irish Research Council Scholarships and Fellowships and through industrial support from the pharmaceutical or microelectronics industry.
- All of these research groups have, in addition to this, benefited from funding one or more of their researchers through the centrally funded facility-administered EU TNA support for experiments at EU facilities as we have confirmed through surveying our members.
- Those research groups who access facilities outside of the EU – say, in the United States of America – fund their participation solely through their research funds and obviously not through EU TNA support which is only for European researchers using European facilities.
However, one fundamental element of this – EU Trans National Acccess – is now coming to an end and is under threat of not being continued further.
The benefits of EU TNA support and the current threat to this support
The ESUO highlighted to the European Commission the danger in discontinuing support for EU TNA by highlighting the “The benefit of the European User Community from transnational access to national radiation facilities“.
- Specifically the ESUO letter emphasised for the attention of the scientific community as much as that of the decision makers within the Commission the importance of access for all scientists in the European Union and associated states to all SR sources. Clearly this matches the stated objectives of the Integrating Activities components of the Research Framework and Horizon 2020 programmes, but the previous success of this was clearly in danger due to the “spotlight” nature of the Horizon 2020 programme.
- The subsequent manifesto of the ESUO emphasized the need for a “floodlight” approach to re-enable “a unique open access system to European light sources with equal research opportunities for scientists from a broad range of different thematic areas and from across all member states” and advocates open access to European light sources.
- The European light sources serve about 25,000 users (pan-data.eu/Users2012-Results). These users sport very different scientific backgrounds – in molecular physics, materials science, organic and inorganic chemistry, biochemistry and geology, among others. This makes photons science a uniquely multidisciplinary endeavour. Thus the light source user community could be described as the largest body of scientific researchers in Europe.
The diversity of researchers who benefit from access to these light sources is very large and perhaps in the past this diversity has hampered our visibility.
For Irish users there are specific benefits to EU TNA that should be recognised and safeguarded.
- The existence of EU TNA allows Irish research groups to access the best facilities in Europe whenever they are judged in the facility review process to have objectively proposed excellent scientific experiments to carry out at these facilities. it is only the best science that is allocated these precious resource and thus has the opportunity to draw down EU TNA.
- The existence of a funded avenue of access via EU TNA for Irish researchers allows us to explore and initiate new avenues of productive scientific research on topics which are not currently funded and to do so on very short timescales. Most facilities call for new scientific proposals twice a year and successful experiments can then form the basis for programmatic funding either from EU or Irish funding agencies which typically only call for proposals once a year.
- With tightening belts many of our research groups can expect or have experienced funding gaps between programmatic funding, and availability of continued EU TNA access facilitates the continuation of research themes which can bridge these funding gaps and secure continued training of our young researchers in these areas.
All in all it would be foolish not to acknowledge that the EU TNA access is a valuable resource to the Irish scientific research community. These statements can apply to the neutron beam facilities in equal measure as to the light source facilities highlighted by the ESUO.