Diamond Light Source sparkles for its new Chief Executive
PUBLISHED: 11:38 03 March 2014 | UPDATED: 12:11 03 March 2014
© It's Your Day Ltd, Sean Dillow
The UK's Diamond Light Source at Harwell is a world-class technological resource so let's use it to boost our economy says the new CEO, Professor Andrew Harrison.
Imagine an enormous scientific ‘toy box’ full of world-class equipment. Open it up to some of the best scientific minds from across the globe and see the world change. This is already happening at Diamond Light Source, Harwell near Didcot, the UK’s national synchrotron science facility. Shaped like a huge ring, it’s easy to spot as you drive along the A34 Oxford to Newbury dual carriageway.
Most of us go about our daily lives totally unaware of the incredible facility on our doorstep, but within this unique facility some amazing discoveries are taking place.
For readers who, like me, left science behind at the school gate a quick explanation: Diamond Light Source functions like a monster microscope. At its heart is a particle accelerator speeding up electrons to be capable of producing a light 10 billion times brighter than the sun. These beams are directed off into laboratories known as ‘beamlines’ where scientists use the light to study everything from viruses and vaccines to fossils and jet engines.
Opened by The Queen in 2007, it has a world-class reputation and now a new boss who can’t wait to get stuck in.
Professor Andrew Harrison, 54, took over as chief executive on the 1 January following the retirement of Professor Gerhard Materlik, the founding director and x-ray physicist who commissioned, built and launched Diamond. Harrison moved from his previous role as Director General of the Institut Laue-Langevin neutron facility in Grenoble, France and is tasked with exploiting further this remarkable facility by encouraging new collaborations and continuing to push the boundaries of science.
With 499 employees, Diamond is also a significant local employer and Harrison says that employee numbers are set to rise thanks to an increasingly global demand for the facility.
“Engineers and scientists want to work here because we have amazing projects and offer an opportunity for their work which is extremely rare,” he said.
One of his challenges is to contribute to the development of not just the Diamond facility but the whole Harwell campus on which it sits along with a number of other key national science facilities, such as the neutron source, ISIS and the Central Laser Facility. Companies with global reach are also locating themselves at Harwell, including Element Six, a £20 million synthetic diamond research and development centre owned by DeBeers which opened last July.
Many other companies, as well as university research teams, regularly use the synchrotron facilities at Diamond, including Abingdon-based Infineum, Rolls-Royce, Johnson Matthey and Unilever and what’s interesting about these companies, says Harrison, is their increasing willingness to work collaboratively with the Diamond community of scientists in the development of new methodologies. “Science can lead to incremental improvements and also to big leaps in understanding,” he says. “Obviously the companies that send their scientists here want to make better products and new discoveries which will do things that no-one has done before, but science is all very unpredictable. Working together can make the difference because we look at problems from different points of view. That’s why it’s important that everyone talks to each other to share knowledge and spot connections.”
Diamond can measure structure in incredible detail with all sorts of related information such as chemical composition, and one of its notable recent successes is a new vaccine to combat foot-and-mouth disease. Instead of using infectious virus as the basis for the vaccine (the traditional method of vaccine development), scientists synthetically created empty protein shells to imitate the protein coat that forms the strong outer layer of the virus. The nature of this vaccine means it can be produced outside of high containment and does not require a cold storage chain. This should greatly increase production capacity and reduce costs. Globally there is an undersupply of the current vaccine due to the high cost of production and this new development could solve this problem and significantly control foot-and-mouth disease worldwide. The complete absence of some viral proteins from this new vaccine will also allow companion diagnostic tests to be further refined to demonstrate the absence of infection in vaccinated animals with greater confidence, which will in turn have a positive impact on market value.
Another very recent discovery, by leading UK-based drug discovery and development company Heptares Therapeutics, paves the way for a transformation in drug treatments for depression, diabetes and osteoporosis. Heptares uses Diamond to conduct much of its research.
It’s discoveries such as these that will improve the lives of people and boost our economy and Harrison wants more of them, which means getting out and about meeting business leaders, and research scientists, as well as maintaining and improving its strong links to the UK’s world-leading universities, some of which have made their own direct financial investment into Diamond, including Manchester and Imperial College.
Around the world there are around 60 synchrotrons either operating or in development, but the UK facility is in the top tier of global national resources and if it is to stay ahead of other countries such as China, Andrew needs to continue attracting the best scientific minds from across the globe.
“Britain has a large number of exceptionally good universities, but we must also take advantage of talent further afield too,” he says. “We have 44 different nationalities here and if you bring together a group, for example from Britain, France, Hungary and Sweden, you will almost certainly get a better solution because you have a wider variety of perspectives.
The UK Government and the Wellcome Trust committed large capital sums to building Diamond (86% and 14% respectively), and provide the funds to run it. Harrison is keen that this investment doesn’t stop. “Building Diamond was a great achievement, especially as this country has tended to be isolationist about funding scientific infrastructure,” says Harrison. “There is a big business case for such developments as they attract a lot of income into the country and the area. I think the UK Government should seriously consider what else we can build in Britain that would be world leading, and encourage other countries to buy in. We should also get involved in projects in other nations, which will encourage them to get more involved in British ones.
“The German and French governments have put significant amounts of money into research centres in their countries which then become money making opportunities. For every Euro that went into the Grenoble facility where I worked, three were created in inward investment from countries such as the UK and Germany. Ten years after it opened, that facility is a money machine, quite apart from all the wonderful science it delivers.”
Harrison certainly isn’t going to miss an opportunity to bang his Diamond drum.
“At the moment in the field of crystallography of biological molecules we have, in my opinion, the best machine in the world. And this is where those scientists want to come.”
And if a scientist of the international calibre of Harrison is willing to lead the pack, it’s likely that scientists from across the world will be increasingly drawn to the UK’s Diamond synchrotron facility.
Andrew Harrison was born in Oxford where his father was an academic. The family moved to Staffordshire when his father was offered a Chair at Keele University.
Returning to Oxford as an undergraduate in 1978 to read chemistry at St Johns College, Harrison did a DPhil (what Oxford University calls a PhD), and stayed on as a junior research fellow. He was then awarded one of only 30 highly coveted Royal Society Research Fellowships awarded each year.
He became Professor of Chemistry at Edinburgh undertaking research while teaching undergraduates. “Being a university professor is a wonderful job. Standing up in front of first year students and teaching them about the laws of thermo dynamics was incredibly stimulating, especially if you are aware that it may not be a core part of their degree course so you need to make it very interesting”
As part of his research, he spent two months every year at the Institut Laue-Langevin in Grenoble so when, in 2006, a job came up at this big international project in which Britain has a share, he didn’t hesitate. Seven years’ later, three years before his contract ended, he seized the opportunity at Diamond. “I could have gone back to a university but for me, this is the best job in Britain and I got it.”
Andrew is currently commuting between Grenoble and Harwell until his three daughters, aged 11,10 and 8, finish their school year in France later this year. The family, including his wife Alison, will then return to make their home near Oxford.
Diamond is for everyone
“We support everyone, not just the scientific community says Harrison. “Conservationists from the Mary Rose Trust have used the synchrotron to determine the optimum treatment for the timber hull of the Tudor warship, which is now on display in a new museum in Portsmouth. The team is returning with timber samples every six months to check the ongoing stability during the five years it will take to fully dry the ship. We can look at artifacts nondestructively with X-rays, which can uncover the detailed structural information of an item and how it has been worked to discover more of its history. You can look inside opaque objects without breaking them open. Paintings too can be examined to uncover their hitherto unknown past.“X-rays can look through layers of paint.”
This interview by Nicky Godding is from the March 2014 issue of Business & Professional Life