The crystallography Manifesto. Interview with Paolo Radaelli

Read time: 6 mins

A century has passed since the Nobel prizes in physics in 1914 and 1915 were awarded to recognize the importance of X-ray diffraction experiments on crystals. This year, the International Year of Crystallography will commemorate this event. In such an occasion, at the end of January, Nature published a comment by Paolo Radaelli, Head of Condensed Matter Physics and Associate Head of the Department of Physics at the University of Oxford, about the current situation of this field of knowledge. In order to further discuss some of the points he highlighted, we asked him for an interview.


You described crystallography as a world rich in diversity, a trait that once was a merit and now could have changed into a flaw. It seems that crystallographers still have to decide if they want to join the Big Science club – together with disciplines like neurosciences or particle physics – or remain a fractioned and local community. In your opinion, what should be done to overcome this issue?

Traditionally, the scientific unions and learned societies representing crystallography, such at the International Union of Crystallography and the British Crystallographic Association, have kept well clear of politics and have refrained from giving opinions and instigating reports on Big Science project because of the political implications.  I am afraid this is no longer an option. If crystallographers want to have a say in their future facilities, they must “get their hands dirty” and accept a degree of political involvement and confrontation.

You claimed the necessity of a CERN-like institution for crystallography, in order to develop a common road map and gain political weight. How would you do that? What steps should be taken at first?

CERN is quite unique in the international scientific landscape, and it simply not possible to replicate it in other fields. The reason for this is that CERN fulfills several roles at once: it provides community governance, drives the consultations to prioritize and specify facilities, acts as an interface with the politicians on behalf of the community and hosts the actual facilities.Importantly, a large tranche of the funding for new accelerators, both capital and running costs, comes directly from CERN, paid from the contributions of the CERN member states. In the field of international multi-disciplinary facilities, these roles will have to be shared to some extent. To start with, there is already a network of national-scale research facilities such as third-generation medium-energy synchrotrons. The largest facilities, such as the European Spallation Source and the European XFEL, are too expensive for an individual country, but there is no single site that can host them all. The closest we have in Europe to a CERN-like site is the Polygone Scientifique in Grenoble, which hosts two major facilities (the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility and the high-flux neutron reactor at the Institut Laue-Langevin), but the Polygone does not have any space left to grow further. We are therefore stuck with a model in which international facilities will be hosted in different countries, which clearly exacerbates the political dimension of the problem. In my comment on Nature, I suggest that we should take all the other functions (community governance, prioritization, siting, negotiation and a major slice of the funding pie) out of the hands of the national politician and consolidate them in a single European body, most credibly under the aegis of the European Research Council.

You wrote that Europe may play a significant role for the development of large-scale facilities for crystallography. Within Europe, which countries could lead such a process? Can Italy, in particular, become a major player in this contest?

Italy is already a major player, for example, in the field of facilities based on electron accelerators, such as free electron lasers (FELs). There are currently two national facilities, the compact FEL in Frascati and [email protected] (under commissioning), and further proposals for machines to be built in Frascati (SPARC, SPARX).  Italy is also a significant contributor (at a 4.5% level) to the XFEL project in Hamburg, both in cash and in kind. Italy has also made significant contributions to the development of neutron instrumentation both at ISIS and at the ILL, although the lack of a competitive national neutron research facility has somewhat hampered progress, particularly in limiting the size of the community.  There are significant problems with the current model used to prioritize and site international multi-disciplinary facilities: for example, siting decisions do not always favor or even involve existing centers of excellence and expertise, and the growing trend of encouraging “in kind” (rather than “in cash”) national contributions means that those offering such contributions are not always in the best position to deliver. 

What is going on in countries like Brazil, India or China? Are they investing in large-scale facilities for crystallography?

Emerging countries have made large investments in these facilities.  China has a modern 3rd generation synchrotron (the Shanghai Synchrotron Radiation Facility) and Brazil is building one (SIRIUS, under construction at Campinas University campus near São Paulo). India is planning to build one within the next decade. As far as neutron sources are concerned, China has built a modern research reactor (the China Advanced Research Reactor in Beijing, now in commissioning) and is planning a spallation source (the China Spallation Neutron Source, which is being built in Dongguan, Guangdong province) with operation planning to start in 2018. Many of these countries have active research programs in X-ray and neutron sciences, which are also being pursued through a web of collaborations with Facility in Europe, Asia and America.

Public consensus may be important to drive the attention of politicians. According to you, how is crystallography perceived by the general public? Is its importance – as you highlighted it in your article – recognized by citizens?

Undeniably, the sciences of materials in general and crystallography in particular do not have the public allure of other scientific endeavors, such as astronomy and high-energy physics. The sociological reasons for this have perhaps not been thoroughly explored, but in essence the “big questions” – where do we come from, what is our place in the universe – are perceived as more relevant and inspiring for the lay persons than other equally profound questions about the world around us, in spite of the fact that the latter have a much greater potential for changing our lives for the better. I do not believe this should be a source of envy between different fields of science: inspiration and public understanding may be biased towards certain areas, but the beneficiary is science as a whole. It is crucial, however, to disseminate the results of research in crystallography and related field and to clarify the link with technology and innovation, so that the general public appreciates how worthwhile and cost-effective public investments are, particularly for the in large-scale facilities I have been discussing in my piece.

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