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Excellent Research Undone

Photonics Spectra
Sep 2000
Gaynell Terrell

So when it was reported in May that more than half of the university laboratories in the UK were using outdated equipment, we wondered what might be amiss. The report, from Manchester University's Policy Research in Engineering, Science and Technology Institute, stated that at least £600 million ($885 million) is needed to bring essential facilities up to date.

Several department heads complained that their research was limited by the unavailability of equipment and that two-thirds of departments were unable to perform critical experiments, the report said. Also, a two-decades-old hole in funding fell far short of providing what was needed.

We've heard all this before. A few years ago, British tabloids screamed that college cash cuts were "turning labs into death traps." There were reports of a potentially devastating explosion in a Cambridge University chemistry lab. Manchester University was said to be breaking the law by failing to comply with safety and health standards. And, in the Imperial College's physics department, one laboratory was sealed off because it was unsafe, and another had been flooded twice with sewage.

It is impossible to sugarcoat the sewage story, but the then-chief science adviser to the prime minister gave it a jolly good go. In an article published in the journal Science, Sir Robert May said British science was the most cost-effective in the world because it is conducted at universities rather than at specialty institutes. The "nonhierarchical nature" of most universities, "coupled with the pervasive influence of irreverent young undergraduate and postgraduate students, could be the best environment for productive research," he said. To his credit, May allowed that there was room for improvement in maintaining lab equipment.

It's an interesting perspective, and it makes the best of a bad situation. We like that. But we also suspect that the science department heads and irreverent students might take exception to giddily working with aging and nonexisting lab equipment.

There's nothing like opening a box and finding a femtosecond laser to make a scientist feel like it's Christmas.


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