Science-Clusters

THE WIDENING NORTH-SOUTH DIVIDE IN UK SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH: EVIDENCE FROM THE SYNCHROTON IN OXFORDSHIRE

The UK government’s decision to build the Diamond Light Source research centre in Oxfordshire rather than Manchester has further widened the north-south divide in scientific research, as many campaigners feared. That is the main finding of research by Christian Helmers and Henry Overman, presented at the Royal Economic Society’s 2013 annual conference.

The study looks at scientific journal publications across disciplines potentially affected by the Diamond Light Source since its opening in January 2007. The facility is a third-generation synchrotron that accelerates electrons to near light-speed, providing opportunities for scientific research in a number of disciplines.

The authors compare scientific output near Diamond’s site in Oxfordshire to output near Daresbury in Manchester, the other site considered for the investment that has similar characteristics but is outside the so-called ‘Golden Triangle’ of research – London, Cambridge and Oxford.

The authors show that scientific research in areas close to the synchrotron increased more than if the facility had been located elsewhere. The findings suggest that this is the combined result of two effects:

  • A direct effect, which results simply from ease of access to the facility for researchers who use the synchrotron.
  • An indirect effect, which suggests a beneficial impact on scientific research even when that research makes no direct use of Diamond, something the authors suggest arises as a result of ‘local externalities’ that bring researchers involved in similar areas to work around the site.

The chosen location for the Diamond site was controversial at the time, with debates in parliament and throughout the media and some accusing lobbyists of interfering. The authors comment:

‘Although the impacts spread beyond the direct users of Diamond, scientists located further away from the facility benefited far less than scientists nearby.

‘These effects will further strengthen the Golden Triangle. This may be good for UK plc, but it also suggests that critics were right to argue that the decision to abandon Daresbury might further exacerbate the north-south research divide.’

If these findings are an example of a more general trend, the authors note that it would mean ‘the benefits of government investments in scientific research infrastructure are unlikely to spill over widely across space. Instead, such investments are likely to create local scientific research clusters’.

More…

Government support for scientific research and innovation is viewed as central to long-term economic growth. With governments investing billions of pounds in science and research, it is not surprising that debate rages on which technologies should be supported. But decisions around where to spend the money can be every bit as controversial. In particular, critics of UK government policy argue that there should be less focus on the ‘Golden Triangle’ of London, Cambridge and Oxford. Central to this argument is the extent to which benefits from significant government investments spill over across space.

This research considers these spillovers, by looking at the impact of the Diamond Light Source, a third generation synchrotron that costs £380 million and represents the largest single investment in basic research infrastructure in the modern history of the UK.

The findings suggest that Diamond created strong local effects that promoted the formation of a research cluster in close geographical proximity to the facility. If true more generally, this would mean that the benefits of government investments in scientific research infrastructure are unlikely to spill over widely across space. Instead, such investments are likely to create local scientific research clusters.

Quantifying the impact of large-scale basic scientific infrastructure such as a synchrotron is generally difficult because policy-makers do not randomly pick a location for the infrastructure investment. Instead, policy-makers strategically place the facility into an existing scientific hub (in the case of Diamond, the Harwell Science and Innovation Campus at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory near Oxford).

This then poses the challenge of how to separate existing effects from any additional effects created by the new facility. The study overcomes this challenge by using the controversy surrounding the siting of Diamond and, in particular, the existence of a ‘runner-up’ location in Daresbury.

In 1998, the UK government initially planned to locate Diamond near Daresbury in Manchester (at the time, home to the Synchrotron Radiation Source). Effective lobbying led to a change of heart – and a final decision in 2000 to locate the new facility in Didcot, near Oxford, instead of Daresbury – sparking fierce controversy. The issue was debated in parliament and received considerable public interest because the controversy was framed within the longstanding debate on the north-south divide in terms of investment in scientific research in the UK.

This study analyses changes in scientific output in the form of scientific journal publications across disciplines potentially affected by Diamond’s opening in January 2007. The researchers compare output near Diamond to output near Daresbury to show that scientific output in direct proximity to the synchrotron increased more than it would have had the facility been located elsewhere.

The empirical findings suggest that this is the combined result of two effects: a direct effect and an indirect effect. The direct effect results simply from ease of access to the facility for researchers who use the synchrotron.

The indirect effect is perhaps more surprising: the researchers identify a beneficial impact on scientific research even when that research makes no direct use of Diamond. They suggest that these indirect affects arise as a result of ‘local externalities’. Such knowledge externalities have been found in numerous studies to drive the clustering of innovative companies or the co-location of universities and industry.

The evidence obtained from the opening of Diamond shows that `lumpy’, large-scale infrastructure investments such as a synchrotron can also create strong local externalities, which promote the formation of research clusters. This finding implies that the effect of the facility spreads unevenly across space.

Although the impacts spread beyond the direct users of Diamond, scientists located further away from the facility benefited far less than scientists nearby. These effects will further strengthen the Golden Triangle, which may be good for UK plc, but suggests that critics were right to argue that the decision to abandon Daresbury might further exacerbate the north-south research divide.

ENDS


Notes for editors:

‘My precious! The location and diffusion of scientific research: evidence from the Synchrotron Diamond Light Source’ by Christian Helmers and Henry Overman (2013), Spatial Economics Research Centre Discussion Paper.

Synchrotrons are circular particle accelerators that produce synchrotron light whose short wavelength allows studying the structure of very small objects such as molecules and atoms. This is particularly useful for fundamental and applied research in scientific disciplines such as structural biology, physics, chemistry, crystallography and materials science.

Contact:

RES media consultant Romesh Vaitilingam:
+44 (0) 7768 661095
romesh@vaitilingam.com
@econromesh

Page Options