ISIS cut to just 120 days of operation per year as budget cuts bite

Key UK national science facilities, including the Diamond Light Source and the ISIS neutron beam laboratory, have had their funding cut, the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) has revealed. 

STFC announced the cuts on 25 June, as it confirmed its budget for the 2009-2010 financial year. The loss of funding means that ISIS - which has just opened a second neutron target station with seven new instruments, built at a cost of ?145 million - will operate for just 120 days this year, approximately half its true capacity. 

’The impact of the international financial situation has required us to adjust our programme by closely scrutinising costs and managing the programme within our budget allocation,’ said STFC Chief Executive Officer, Professor Keith Mason, at the announcement. ’We have done so after consultation with our scientific advisory bodies.’ 

Mason’s comments suggested that the cuts may not be the last: ’We have finalised the budget for this year, but are very aware of the likely impact of the current economic environment on public sector finances in the medium term.’ 

Scientific impact 

While the reduction to the ISIS budget is relatively small, the cuts dramatically reduce the number of days the facility can operate, says Uschi Steigenberger, director of ISIS operations. 

’The budget cut is ?2.3 million, which means we will be able to operate for a maximum of 120 days,’ Steigenberger told Chemistry World. ’On a facility like ISIS our baseline costs are very high, so the cut may be only at the 4-5 per cent level, but that means we lose 20 per cent of the scientific output.’ 

The cuts are the second in as many years, as the 2008/2009 budget reduced operational time from 180 to 150 days. Similar facilities in Europe, such as the Laue-Langevin institute (ILL) in Grenoble, France, typically operate at 220-240 days per year - a level that ISIS could readily achieve, and the most efficient way to run such facilities, Steigenberger adds. 

The reduction to beam time as ISIS has been criticised by the chemistry community, who use the neutron scattering facility for a wide variety of research, from drug delivery to advanced materials. Neutrons scatter from materials to give information on the location and movement of atoms within a sample, and are particularly suited to studying light atoms such as hydrogen and lithium, which are not easily to see by x-ray crystallography as they have so few electrons. 


’In any research environment, what’s important is the real transformative research, and that’s where ISIS is incredibly important,’ says John Evans, a solid state chemist at the University of Durham, UK, who chairs one of the ISIS access panels that recommends which projects should be awarded beam time at the facility. 

ISIS is crucially important for many priority research areas, Evans continues. ’Energy is obviously a big issue for the future, and if you’re looking at hydrogen storage materials then the technique to use is neutron scattering,’ says Evans. ’There’s lots of beautiful experiments that go on, looking at hydrogen storage materials in situ, seeing how the hydrogen goes in and out - for developing those materials, neutron scattering is a superb technique. It’s similarly powerful for lithium ions for rechargeable battery technology.’ 

The ISIS cuts will come into effect just as the ILL facility, which the UK also part-funds, is closed down for 6 months for unscheduled maintenance - exacerbating the impact of the ISIS reduction, Evans adds. 

The cuts come despite ISIS and related facilities being recently described as ’indispensable tools for modern research’ in the 2009 International review of chemistry, run by the Engineering and Physical Research Council (EPSRC). The panel urged that ’facilities such as these should be a national priority’ - but their plea has apparently not been heeded by STFC. 

James Mitchell Crow