SciTech Europa met with Diamond Light Source’s Professor Laurent Chapon and Professor Dave Stuart at the launch of the START project to discuss the role of Diamond in the European and global research landscape and the project’s importance.
In March, SciTech Europa attended the official launch of the START project, which took place at Oxford University’s St Catherine’s College, in the UK. START is a £3.7m (~€4.3m) project, led by the UK’s synchrotron, Diamond Light Source, focusing on research that is important to development in Africa.
The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) awarded the funding to Diamond from the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), a five-year, £1.5bn fund that is a key component in the delivery of the UK Aid Strategy, ensuring that UK research takes a leading role in addressing the problems faced by developing countries through research and innovation. START will enable researchers to address challenges concerning energy and healthcare.
The START launch event provided a great opportunity for networking and for the discussion of current and future research activities with colleagues from the UK and Africa – across both research streams: structural biology and energy materials.
On the sidelines of the event, SciTech Europa met with Professor Laurent Chapon, Diamond’s Physical Sciences Director, and Professor Dave Stuart, Diamond’s Life Sciences Director, to discuss the role of Diamond in the European and global research landscape and the importance of the START project.
Diamond holds what Chapon referred to as a “very special position” in the European R&D&I landscape. As the UK’s national synchrotron, it caters to the British scientific community in very diverse areas of science. There are numerous other synchrotrons in use across Europe today, almost all of them overlapping in terms of their core capabilities, but with some specialisations. Chapon told SE: “For example, the German synchrotrons are each focussing in specific areas, one (PETRA) in high energy X-ray research and the other (BESSY) building more time-resolved capabilities. This is a scenario that can’t be duplicated for the UK synchrotron.”
Diamond is offering a very diverse portfolio of scientific techniques, thereby providing services for a wide range of users across the region. Indeed, some 25% of Diamond’s users are from outside of the UK. Diamond is also located close to very good universities, which have active research programmes, and this also serves to benefit Diamond. “Here,” Chapon said, “structural biology and chemistry, in particular catalysis, are strong areas of research as it is a significant feature of these research programmes, whilst, of course, it is also necessary for the activities undertaken by the pharmaceutical industry in the former area.
“We are complimentary to the other European synchrotrons; we welcome researchers from across Europe and further afield not only because of our extract capacity but also because of the specialised services that we are able to offer, which may not necessarily be available elsewhere. Of course, we cannot provide everything, and so British researchers will also travel abroad to access the things we can’t offer here.”
Diamond’s Head of Communications, Isabelle Boscaro-Clarke, who also joined the meeting, added: “Every European country has its own user community, and so each country will build capacity around the needs of that community. As such, while the different European synchrotrons might be complementary, they also cater for the demand of their user base and this therefore means that the services offered by each might be distinct or might cross-over, depending on those needs.”
Diamond – a unique facility
For Chapon, there are three other elements which serve to make Diamond unique: the addition of the Electron Microscopy Facility and integrated facilities; the strong synergies across campus, which includes connections with both research and industry; and the future interactions with the Rosalind Franklin Institute and Faraday Institution. The Rosalind Franklin Institute is a new national institute which will focus on developing transformative technologies for life science, including next-generation methods enabling dynamic, real-time imaging of biological processes at the molecular scale and on new chemical methods and strategies for drug discovery. The Institute is funded through UK Research and Innovation, and has university members across the UK.
The Faraday institution is the UK’s independent institute for electrochemical energy storage science and technology. “There is a huge momentum on the Harwell campus at the moment, and this is developing faster here than it has in other locations,” Chapon said.
Stuart highlighted the vaccine manufacturing centre at Diamond as a recent example of how the synergies are continuing to evolve: “There is a real opportunity to build on the critical mass of science.” He added that Diamond’s “nimble governance structure and support from national funders and the Wellcome Trust” also serve to make Diamond unique and enable it to move forwards and grasp new opportunities.
At the European level, Diamond is also well-connected with LEAPS, the League of European Accelerator-based Photon Sources – a strategic consortium initiated by the Directors of the Synchrotron Radiation and Free Electron Laser (FEL) user facilities in Europe which, according to Boscaro-Clarke, is trying to position itself so as to be able to better co-ordinate technology development etc. It is through this too, she explained, that Diamond is able to plug into the European landscape in terms of both biology and the physical sciences.
Stuart then underlined Diamond’s history of engagement with other facilities, focusing on the facility’s links with the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF), particularly in areas like crystallography. He said: “We have worked with the ESRF to develop a database of common definitions, for instance, which is hugely beneficial.”
In addition to supporting the UK research community, Diamond also supports the skills agenda within the UK’s Industrial Strategy while, as previously mentioned, the START project receives funding from the GCRF and so ties into the UK Aid Strategy. However, rather than this demanding a shift in measurables and deliverables in terms of results, the START project will build on existing achievements at Diamond.
Chapon explained: “We are active in many areas which are connected to the Industrial Strategy; one of the key ingredients of this is the fact that we are incredibly active in the area of fundamental science, which underpins the industrial strategy. Indeed, you can’t have an industrial strategy without having the fundamental knowledge on which to build, and this takes time. Even when you have industry-driven research – which is what are seeing with regard to electric vehicles, for instance – the research which came before was undertaken for fundamental reasons. These fundamental questions are still there; they are not detached from industry or from any industrial strategy.”
While the long-term and application-orientated benefits of fundamental research are often not well-understood by those out of the research (and perhaps industry) spheres, there is nevertheless a sense that this message is indeed being received by politicians and governmental organisations. As Chapon told SEQ: “The STFC is a strong advocate of fundamental science. As their Executive Director of Programmes, Professor Grahame Blair, said in his presentation today: the STFC’s goal is ‘to understand the Universe’; and that is a goal which will only be achieved by including fundamental science as a key element.”
When it comes to the life sciences, the Medical Research Council is similarly solid in its support for basic science. Stuart explained: “To take the Medical Research Council’s Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge (where Richard Henderson was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2017) as an example: this is a research institute which doesn’t do applied science. Yet, while their focus is on fundamental science it is clear that, in the long-term, this work translates into applications – the whole monoclonal antibody revolution was driven by those at this laboratory, for example. As such, the MRC really does seem to understand that supporting basic research is crucial, and that has been very helpful for us.”
Big Science as a business
It has been highlighted elsewhere that it can be incredibly difficult for small, innovative companies to access the market offered by so-called ‘big science’ infrastructures and projects, and synchrotron science and facilities such as Diamond are no exception. As such, Diamond is actively working to attract such companies and thus help them to establish themselves. Indeed, STFC and Diamond are funding grants which allows small companies to access the funds they need to engage in programme work. Chapon told SEQ: “A recent example of this saw a small company on the Harwell Campus access Diamond’s facilities to explore fundamental materials. Through this grant they were also able to gain access to the people at Diamond and thus our knowledge.”
Stuart added that the situation with regard to grants at Diamond is a fluid one, and that the facility is working with the grants mentioned by Chapon as well as EU science grants. “We are also very much engaged in formulating some parts of the relevant agendas here, and we are undertaking proof of principle activities as well, where we are working with a company in Iceland to set up a Cloud-based system to help people to take the chemistry from their investigations forwards,” he said.
With the UK set to leave the European Union, albeit amid delays and controversy, there may be impacts on Diamond given the possible restrictions on the movement of goods and people (amongst other things). For Chapon, however, the fact that Diamond has a solid UK user base and will hold it in good stead.
That being said, collaboration and co-operation will remain hugely important moving forwards, as this results in innovation. “You don’t want to become insular in that process,” Chapon said. “And while Brexit may indeed see some restrictions being placed on the freedom of movement, there will be ways through which our international users are able to come to Diamond for a short period in order to use the facility. What is perhaps of more concern is the long term and the science diplomacy behind that, and there could be a challenge to maintain a strong influence.”
Stuart added: “From the beginning, synchrotrons have always had a very open policy. There was a period in the 1990s when my group would regularly visit Japan because there was an outstanding facility there for doing the particular kind of science we were interested in. There was also a period when we would use the Daresbury synchrotron, and we would also use the European one. That is a principle which came from the culture that existed in the physics community, particularly at CERN, and that has been really healthy for us. I would be very worried if we started to lose that.
“If we want to remain at the cutting edge, then we need to ensure we continue to attract people from outside of the UK who bring different perspectives with them; we need to attract the best users from around the world who can come and do the best science and tell us about what is happening elsewhere; it is important to have that exchange.”
The START initiative is a great example of the importance of this knowledge exchange and the benefits that can be reaped for both Diamond and its international user community. “Science and innovation has no frontiers,” Chapon said. “And building a community of different people from different places who come together with different problems but the same technology needs always result in new and exciting directions for research. This two-way traffic between the two communities, the knowledge transfer and the teaching and training, is going to be absolutely key moving forwards.”
Stuart added: “There is some exceptionally good bio-medical research going on in Africa at the moment, particularly in areas such as HIV, and there are a lot of good researchers there, too. But they don’t have a synchrotron, they cannot access high-end electron microscopy, and because of that there is a distinct lack of knowledge. As such, there is real potential to open that up and enable those people who are doing fantastic science to access a wider range of techniques.”
For Chapon, Diamond offers an environment where many projects are taking place simultaneously, and this means that it becomes quite easy to network and to connect to others working on other projects but who have shared interests. He concluded: “This is a big part of what the START grant will achieve, and I believe that we will see a snowballing on the periphery of the community.”
The START project will bring African researchers to Diamond so that they can engage with both the excellent facilities and the excellent staff, working together to solve some of the most pressing challenges in Africa and, at the same time, bringing new perspectives to the work taking place at the UK’s synchrotron.
Professor Laurent Chapon
Physical Sciences Director
Professor Dave Stuart
Life Sciences Director
Diamond Light Source