Surging energy expenditures, supply deficiencies, and prolonged delivery durations sparked by the Covid-19 pandemic and the conflict between Russia and Ukraine have exerted a ‘significant influence’ on scientific establishments throughout Europe, according to a pivotal organization that counsels European decision-makers on research infrastructure. The European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructure (Esfri), in its most recent report, observes that synchrotrons have borne the brunt of these predicaments, with five out of ten reporting planned operational halts. The report draws on replies to a survey dispatched to research facilities in December 2022.
Among the 116 survey retorts, the most prevalent challenge encountered was the financial repercussions stemming from amplified energy expenses, with energy-intensive sites such as synchrotrons, computing hubs, particle sources driven by accelerators, neutron installations, research reactors, and lasers bearing the greatest impact. An additional concern arose due to the insufficient availability of essential resources, encompassing the elements helium-3, nitrogen, argon, and xenon, along with substances formerly provided by the Russian Federation. These included uncommon variations of calcium and cobalt isotopes. The duration for deliveries has also notably extended, with certain vital apparatuses taking more than half a year to reach the designated location. Esfri acknowledges that this circumstance is causing a direct influence on schedules for building and enhancing facilities, consequently impacting the scientific yield.
John Collier, the director of the Central Laser Facility (CLF) at the UK Science and Technology Facilities Council, articulates that the supply chain challenges expounded upon within the report are not distant matters, but rather daily realities experienced by him and his colleagues. He observes that these challenges manifest in two distinct manners. Firstly, there’s the simple matter of acquiring necessary resources, a task that has evolved from being relatively straightforward in the pre-Covid, pre-Ukraine war era to now being quite intricate. Collier elucidates, ‘The second aspect concerns cost. Certain components have witnessed staggering price hikes in comparison to the pre-Covid world. It’s as though capacity has eroded, stocks have diminished, and the availability of raw materials has dwindled, resulting in a tangible impact on organizations’ ability to deliver.’
Cristina Hernandez-Gomez, who leads the high-power lasers division at CLF, underscores that the attrition of expertise due to retirements and departures during the Covid-19 pandemic has further exacerbated delays. She recounts an example involving crystal procurement from the US, where the absence of two crystal-growing experts led to repeated failures in the crystal’s growth, causing an 18-month delay.
Many components crucial for major research facilities are bespoke, limiting their availability to a handful of suppliers. To mitigate this, CLF has initiated discussions with alternative suppliers to create components matching the required specifications, thereby broadening their supply options. However, as Hernandez-Gomez points out, innovative approaches come with their own costs. Collier offers an instance where critical components sourced from Ukraine were held up due to geopolitical circumstances. While the Ukrainians eventually managed to navigate the hurdles and deliver the components through Lithuania, the process took over a year.
Collier also highlights the disruptive effect of Covid-19 lockdowns on equipment supply and installation. He recounts a notable instance involving a multimillion-pound laser sent for installation just before the first lockdown, which subsequently faced several years of installation delays, finally being used for experiments months ago.
Rajeev Pattathil, a group leader at CLF, raises concerns about the long-term repercussions of these challenges. The drastic increase in costs, as he illustrates, hampers investments in cutting-edge technology development that could enhance the facility’s international competitiveness. Instead, these funds are diverted towards the facility’s basic operational needs, leading to a ripple effect on future prospects.
The Esfri report presents several recommendations aimed at the European Commission and national policymakers. These include formulating response strategies to curtail energy consumption at major facilities, enhancing resilience to future crises, and establishing measures to bolster the Ukrainian research community. Additionally, the report advocates for supplementary funding and energy price caps for the most energy-intensive research infrastructure. However, Collier expresses skepticism about significant additional funding in the UK, especially in the current political climate.
In the interim, Collier suggests that research facilities will need to meticulously revise their plans to minimize delays. In certain cases, critical choices might entail forgoing specific endeavors to achieve essential savings. Collier acknowledges that their buffer of spare components has helped them weather some storms, but the escalating cost of replacements might curtail investment in future-focused initiatives, thereby leaving a palpable impact.