27 April 2011 by Pelle Neroth
Malmö, Sweden's third largest city, pop 295.000, has long had a problem. It has always been something of an economic and cultural backwater compared to Stockholm, despite being 700 km closer to the continent.
Malmö is no way near as blighted as Hull, but it's an exception to the rule that seems to say: the closer a region is to the centre of Europe, the more prosperous it is compared to the rest of the country. Think Catalonia compared to the rest of Spain, or the Northern italy vs Rome, or the South East vs Scotland. All richer because they are, well, perhaps better connected.
Skåne, the local region, lost its trading links to Europe when it was seized from Denmark and incorporated into the Swedish Empire in the 1600s. Denmark, across the narrow Öresund straits, is more prosperous.
Such prosperity as Malmö had came from its shipyards. When it lost those in the 1980s due to Asian competition, civic leaders were jolted into action to try and save the region. A bridge to Copenhagen was built (one of Europe's more graceful engineering sights). A new Malmö university was opened. And, in the nearby Skåne town of Lund, a new science facility is taking shape.
The €1.3bn European Spallation Source (ESS), which starts construction in 2012, will be the biggest facility of its kind in the world. It will employ 500 international scientists and hopes to attract 3,000 scientists and industrial researchers a year for shorter projects.
Its director, Colin Carlile, a British physicist, is an experienced infighter in the politics of European science. He headed the Grenoble-based Institut Laue Langevin, the world's largest spallation source for years until overtaken by Japanese and American rivals. ESS claims it will be 100 times more powerful than either.
Carlile tells me that "sheer will" made Lund happen, with huge local government support, who hope the ESS will boost Lund/Malmo in the global science research rankings and that it will matter as much in reputational terms for Malmö-Lund as CERN did for Geneva.
Lund, a town of 70,000 just 15km from Malmö, already has Scandinavia's top science university, though only about 100th in the global university rankings. The idea is that the ESS will act as an investment magnet.
SO what do spallation sources like the ESS do? They are basically huge devices for shooting neutrons at a material to determine its structure and qualities.
The neutrons bounce against the atomic nuclei of the object and their characteristic scattering pattern can be measured.
The process gives much more detailed information about molecular structures than can be acquired through X-rays, synchrotrons or electron microscopes. It could help when determining material stresses in jet engines, developing effective membranes for fuel cells, or finding molecule candidates for new medicines.
Critics have asked whether bureaucratic delays will not have lost it competitive advantage compared to the US and Asian sites. Carlile admits scientists will have to "overcome their prejudices" to work in "high tax Sweden". (Here is one selling point, though: Skåne is the lovely setting for Wallander TV series.)
So it's a gamble: not only has Sweden somewhat lukewarm European backing, France and the UK are withholding full support because they are keen to keep working with their own high quality facilities. (In Oxford, ISIS). It is also up against the world's best research centres. SNS, the US rival, is being supported by the Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore labs.
But if it works out, it could show the way as to how post-industrial regions in Europe can regenerate themselves. The UK has several regional universities - beyond Oxbridge - at least as good as or better than Lund.
Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent
Posted By: Pelle Neroth @ 27 April 2011 10:58 AM Energy
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