By Jonathan Fildes
Science and technology reporter, BBC News
Alice will cost approximately £3m a year to run
A world class science project that has already received £25m of public funding may be pulled before it has provided any experimental results.
The Alice project at the Daresbury labs in Cheshire is the first particle accelerator of its kind in Europe.
Cuts in science funding mean that it may be binned as early as July, after six years of design and construction.
UK scientists who had planned to use Alice say they may be forced to do experiments in the US or Russia.
Taxpayers' money was used to build Alice (Accelerators and Lasers in Combined Experiments) as a machine that would demonstrate accelerator technologies - but scientists believe it could do much more; it should be used to run an experimental programme.
"Having spent £25m to build it, it would seem crazy not to operate it," said Professor Peter Weightman from the University of Liverpool, who has guaranteed funding to do work that requires a machine such as Alice.
The machine will cost approximately £3m a year to run.
"If we can't do experiments here, we will have to go to our sister lab in the States or to a facility in Siberia," added Professor Wendy Flavell from the University of Manchester, who also hoped to use the facility.
The future of Alice is currently being considered by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), which is looking to plug an £80m deficit in its funding.
UK Science Minister Ian Pearson, who was visiting the Daresbury laboratory, told BBC News that he was committed to the future of the laboratories but would not step in to guarantee funding for individual projects.
"It isn't for government to make decisions on what is the best science - it is really for the individual scientific communities to do that," he said.
Mr Pearson was at Daresbury to announce £25m of funding for a new innovation centre to attract hi-tech businesses to the laboratory, one of just two major national laboratories in the country. Firms at the centre will be able to take advantage of the expertise and facilities at the lab.
"We are committed to seeing Daresbury expand in the future and its future prospects are looking bright," said Mr Pearson announcing the deal.
"I have no doubt that we are going to see continued business investment into this campus and continued strong growth from the business we already have here today."
There are already 60 firms in the existing innovation centre. However, many scientists fear that Daresbury will become "just another business park" without investment in cutting-edge facilities.
"There are lots of plans for developing the Daresbury site but a key issue is that you should have a scientific driver," said Professor Weightman.
One attraction for companies would be Alice, a prototype machine that allows scientists to probe materials in unprecedented detail.
It is a test bed for technology that will be used in the New Light Source (NLS), a soon to be launched £150m "super microscope" that will allow scientists to capture exquisite images of chemical reactions for the first time.
"Every single building block you would need for a new light source has been deployed here," said Susan Smith, head of the accelerator physics group at the labs which oversees Alice.
However, the prototype, which has been in development for six years, was recently ranked as "low priority" by the STFC in a review of the UK's scientific facilities.
Projects given this status were most at risk of being cut, said the science council, which looks after some of the largest science centres in Britain.
Alice's fate, along with 29 other lower priority science facilities, will be announced by the STFC on 1 July. The impact could be particularly hard on the North West, as the eMerlin radio astronomy network, based on Jodrell Bank, is also low down on the list.
If it comes out of the review unfavourably it will jeopardise other planned projects and pour more taxpayers' money down the drain, say researchers.
Some agencies have already given grants to scientists to exploit the machine, with some grants running until 2011.
"It's a clear example of a lack of joined-up thinking by the research councils," said Professor Flavell, who has said she will have to work abroad if Alice does not get the go ahead.
Other projects, such as a compact particle accelerator known as Emma, also rely on the machine getting the go ahead. The £8.5m project aims to build a machine that could be of use in targeted cancer therapy.
"That's binned if we shut down Alice," said Mrs Smith.
Budget woes may also impact the North West science icon, Jodrell Bank
Even more seriously, say some scientists, it could spell the beginning of the end for the national lab.
"The laboratory will close by slow attrition over a number of years," said Dr Graham Clark, a synchrotron scientist and representative of the trade union Prospect.
Later this year the lab's main facility - the Synchrotron Radiation Source - will be closed; and the continued uncertainty surrounding other projects is having an effect on staffing.
One union official said the laboratory was "haemorrhaging" expertise built up over 45 years. Cuts mean that the lab will also lose 150 posts this year.
The solution to these woes, the unions and scientists say, is funding for Alice or a guarantee that the NLS will be located there.
"Without [a large facility] here, what is the attractor?" asked Mrs Smith.
"I think there is a fallacy that you can have a centre of excellence without the backup and infrastructure related to a large scale facility."
A decision about where to site NLS is not expected any time soon, although Mr Pearson told the BBC he would like to see it located at Daresbury.
However, he said he was convinced that even without a large-scale project, Daresbury would be successful and would attract businesses and scientists.
"There will be a critical mass of scientists there regardless of any decision about whether there is going to be a large machine located there in the future," Mr Pearson said.