Bold ideas and critical thoughts on science.

In this opinion-piece Katharina C. Cramer discusses the impact of the Corona-Crisis on large scale research infrastructures and their limits of performance in the current situation.


As the novel coronavirus continues to spread around the world in the spring of 2020, several European governments have started to implement severe measures such as physical distancing or the closure of local commerce in order to slow down the spread of the virus. But governments have also called on science and academia to join forces to bring together expertise, knowledge and technological resources. During these times, the capabilities and capacities of Research Infrastructures in Europe may crucially add to research on the novel coronavirus. Distributed and/or networked Research Infrastructures can be exploited from practically any point around the world providing, for instance, computing services, cloud storage or access to data collections. Single-sited Research Infrastructures importantly complement distributed and networked efforts in the sense that these facilities host large and complex instruments, not available at smaller research centers such as synchrotron radiation sources or free-electron lasers. But the important, but also critical point is that single-sited facilities, due to their large and complex instruments, are geographically bound which requires scientists to travel to these facilities to carry out experiments and measurements.

Katharina C. Cramer

This characteristic together with the current pandemic situation creates an essential tension between the need of the scientists to come together on site to perform experiments and governmental measures to slow down the spread of the disease such as physical distancing, travel bans and the cancellation of railway and air traffic. In other words, the main concern of this article is hence to illustrate that there is an important, yet critical connection between single-sited Research Infrastructures in Europe, research on the novel coronavirus that needs the experimental resources offered by these facilities as well as the constraints of the current pandemic situation that seriously affect working practices at these facilities.

Examples for distributed/networked Research Infrastructures that may have an important role to play in research on the novel coronavirus include the European Virus Archive (EVA), the European Alliance of Medical Research Infrastructures (AMRI), the European Infrastructure for Translational Medicine (EATRIS) or the European Life-Science Infrastructure for Biological Information (ELIXIR). Examples of single-sited facilities include, for instance, the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF), the European X-Ray Free-Electron Laser (XFEL), the Institut Laue-Langevin (ILL) or the European Spallation Source (ESS) to name some of the largest collaborative efforts. But also national efforts such as the Positron-Electron Tandem Ring Accelerator (PETRA III) at the German Electron Synchrotron (DESY), Source Optimisée de Lumière d’Énergie Intermédiaire du LURE (SOLEIL) in France or Elettra in Italy count among them. These single-sited facilities provide synchrotron radiation or neutrons that are important experimental resources for the life sciences that help to explore living matter down to the atomic level which also includes the structures of viruses. [1] The life sciences, as an umbrella term for several biological and medical research related fields and disciplines such as molecular biology, virology or epidemiology, are expected to play a leading role in science-driven research on the novel coronavirus. But these facilities also serve other disciplines and scientific fields, such as the material sciences, that started to develop protective coatings or improve antiviral materials. [2]

This article generally frames single-sited research facilities in Europe as Research Infrastructures, although alternative concepts such as Big Science would have also been thinkable. But this framing should highlight the interplay between growing political expectations on these projects and their limits of performance in the current situation. Since the turn of the century, there has been increasing political interest from the European Commission and national European governments into the establishment and operation of complex and costly research projects under the umbrella term of Research Infrastructures. [3] This term was coined and introduced by the European Commission in the early 2000s and it was used since then throughout its policy documents. Research Infrastructures do not necessarily differ from other large, complex and/or costly research projects other than that they are branded as Research Infrastructures by politicians and policymakers which comes along with high political expectations. Put differently, the use of the term Research Infrastructures by the EU Commission and other relevant actors in this field is different to scholarly efforts around this and similar terms such as Big Science/big science trying to establish analytically meaningful categories. [4] It rather testifies of what sociologist Olof Hallonsten called a “political hype” [5] around Research Infrastructures which translates into the creation of a feigned competitive environment in which those research projects that got attention of politicians and policymakers are listed on roadmaps and are classified according to their performances and their societal and economic relevance.

By considering this politically induced framing of Research Infrastructures together with the potential role of the life sciences in a science-driven response to the novel coronavirus and the peculiarities of single-sited facilities that they make use of, this article investigates how and under which conditions single-sited Research Infrastructures in Europe can continue operating and maintaining experiments regarding that several of them are currently closed due to the general lockdown in their host countries.


Characteristics of Single-Sited Research Infrastructures

Single-sited Research Infrastructures can be considered as a particular site for experimental practices to take place. With their large instruments and machines, such as particle accelerators, lasers or telescopes, that are unable to move or to be easily relocated, these facilities guard a deep sense of locality. This contrasts, but at the same time also closely connects to, contemporary organizational structures in the scientific communities that are globally connected akin to the rhythms of a globe-spanning “chronogeography” [6]. While some of these facilities are mission-oriented, and carry out one or a small number of experiments at a time (e.g. CERN), others are so-called ‘service facilities’, which cater to the various needs of different scientific user groups at a time (e.g. ILL, ESRF or European XFEL). They offer neutrons or x-ray radiation as experimental resources, which research groups use for their measurements and experiments, while staying at the facility on a short-term basis. This latter kind of organizational and operational modus has been characterized as “small science on big machines” (Hallonsten 2009) which also implies that many different experiments can be conducted simultaneously, creating a constant flow and turnover of scientists and research groups at these facilities.

Apart from these basic considerations, two more aspects of the specific working practices at single-sited Research Infrastructures are important to highlight. They relate to more general conceptual reflections on laboratory science and highlight that the current pandemic situation renders experimental science at single-sited research facilities unique, but also challenging. The first follows philosopher of science Karin Knorr Cetina, who argued that the organization and conduction of science at the end of the twentieth century is largely based on the exchange of e-mails [7]. This modus operandi expands the inner space of the university or the laboratory to external spots on the other side of the globe in order to discuss data and ideas or to schedule experimental set-ups. This aspect certainly also applies to working practices at single-sited Research Infrastructures, but, importantly, it needs to be remembered that their large and complex instruments remain locally bound. This means that while data can be analyzed at home, or new experimental set-ups can be discussed via e-mail, the experiments as such need to be performed on site, making use of particle beams, brilliant radiation or any other kind of experimental resource that is exclusively provided by the facility.

The second aspect follows philosopher Bruno Latour’s point that experiments at these facilities are conducted by bringing the outside world inside the laboratory walls. [8] Particles, proteins or nanostructures which are observed and analyzed by the specific instruments hosted by these facilities do not exclusively exist within this space. But they represent fundamental building blocks of what the world is made of. However, these things are assembled and prepared in specific ways for the conduction of experiments. Similarly, philosopher Ian Hacking argues that a laboratory is “a space for interfering under controllable and isolable conditions”. [9] Laboratory work does not need to wait for phenomena to occur, nor is it dependent on natural conditions such as weather or climate, that may limit the investigation. This seems also true (and fortunate) for the working practices at single-sited Research Infrastructures which serve current research on the novel coronavirus. Although several experiments may be postponed due to closure of the facility, there are no other constraints that impede rescheduling the experiments. This stands in contrast to the situation for disciplines and scientific fields that are bound to specific weather conditions, such as astronomy, where only short time ranges throughout a year exist in which specific observations can be carried out.

Life Science Experiments at Single-Sited Research Infrastructures: A Historically Grown Symbiosis

The current pandemic state affects almost every aspect in society, economy and politics, transforming social and economic structures and working conditions and affecting basic freedoms to move or travel. This may be the beginning of a profound transformation to which a broad variety of scholarly investigations and assessments from different disciplines and scientific fields can contribute. But a medical and biological-driven response to the novel coronavirus will most probably be developed by efforts in the life sciences and neighboring approaches. As mentioned in the introduction, these efforts do not only make use of several virtual, networked or distributed resources, collections or services. But open research concerns also certainly require complementary and additional use of large instruments at single-sited Research Infrastructures.

There is much evidence to show that a symbiosis between the experimental needs of the life sciences and the growth of experimental resources at large, single-sited facilities emerged in the most recent decades in Europe. In the 1990s, the life sciences increasingly began to use neutron sources and synchrotron radiation sources to resolve, for instance, the structures of molecules or proteins. [10] Today, a large part of the experiments at collaborative European laboratories such as the ESRF or the European XFEL and at national facilities such as MAX IV in Sweden or PETRA III at DESY in Germany, are carried out in the context of life science research. These developments since the 1990s were however also paralleled by the set-up of several large distributed efforts such as the Human Genome Project in the 1990s or the European Virus Archive in the late 2000s.

These developments came along with a reformulation of science policy rationales on the European and national levels in the post-Cold War period that created an atmosphere in favour of extensive political support of life science research. This “co-production” [11] of science policy rationales and advancement in experimental practices importantly translated into the transformation of the scientific purposes and practices of large research facilities in Europe in the most recent decades.

Recalling longer historical trajectories, high energy/particle physics dominated large, costly and prestigious research projects throughout the Cold War, which were closely tied to the promises of nuclear physics as strategic assets for national security and power performances. This included the most prominent example: the set-up of CERN in 1954. These logics began to change after the end of the Cold War, when the scientific programmes and politically expected purposes of these particularly large projects became increasingly placed within new policy settings. New policy directions pointed, in a general way, to a more strategic role of knowledge, science and research for and within the economy and society. But they also pinpointed their potential usefulness for creating commercial applications and for solving grand challenges such as health, climate change, ageing or energy security. [12] With regard to the situation in the life sciences, these developments also reveal how “knowledge about life has become a commodity, giving rise to the bioeconomy.” [13] More generally, previous scholarly research has also revealed a broader organizational transformation of large-scale research in Europe throughout the late twentieth century from mainly particle physics projects to, among others, multidisciplinary experimental science at, for instance, synchrotron radiation sources or neutron sources. [14]

Taken together, these organizational changes, which partly transformed biology into what science scholar Niki Vermeulen calls “big biology” [15], link to the rise of biology and related fields as politically supported and publicly funded experimental mainstream activities in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, paralleled by the worldwide growth of scientific collaboration. [16] But it also needs to be borne in mind that the emergence of life sciences and biology as a major experimental activity in many research centres and Research Infrastructures did not come about all of a sudden. This emergence also included longer historical trajectories that originated, for instance, in the formation of molecular biology as a specific branch of investigation in the 1950s and 1960s and the creation of the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) in the mid-1960s and the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in the mid-1970s. [17]

Current Working Practices at Single-Sited Research Infrastructures

Access to the instruments and experimental resources of several single-sited Research Infrastructures for life science research can be considered as one crucial condition among several others to the advancement of scholarly knowledge and understanding of the novel coronavirus. To gain an impression of the European landscape of Research Infrastructures related to the biological and medical sciences, the EU-funded project Mapping of the European Research Infrastructure Landscape (MERIL) lists 1024 Research Infrastructures in Europe, a number which includes national and collaborative as well as single-sited, mobile and virtual ones among a broad variety of disciplines. 524 of these infrastructures are situated in the biological and medical sciences; 208 of them are single-sited. 78 of these single-sited Research Infrastructures are located in the five European countries that are most affected (in absolute numbers of confirmed cases) [18] by the spread of the novel coronavirus namely France (18), Germany (22), Italy (3), Spain (18) and the United Kingdom (17). [19] Several of these facilities are currently closed and operation is shut down. Several governments in Europe have also implemented severe measures of physical distancing and travel bans to slow down the spread of the disease. This further complicates the work at these facilities including short-term visits from user groups, which has, so far, been the normal way of organizing this kind of experimental science. Some facilities still offer remote access or mail-in analysis, which means that samples are measured and analyzed by in-house scientists and data are taken on mail-order. However, this is not necessarily something new; this kind of service already existed at several facilities, such as the ESRF, since the mid-1990s. At other facilities, such as Diamond in the United Kingdom or the Paul Scherrer Institut in Switzerland, robots handle some part of the experimental work. [20] It needs to be stressed that remote access and mail-in orders also require coordinating efforts and experimental work on site of the facility and that the capabilities of the robots are far away from replacing human researchers which both cannot be maintained when the facility is closed and operation is shut down. Moreover, the closure of these facilities does not only affect current experimental performances. But experiments need to be postponed and experimental cycles need to be rescheduled. These considerations illustrate that these facilities face similar challenges to those that governments, societies and economies at large face: namely how and under which conditions can scientific practice at these facilities be maintained or return to a kind of near-to-normal state.

As of late April 2020, ESRF and SOLEIL in France, Free Electron Lasers for Infrared Experiments (FELIX) in the Netherlands, DESY in Germany and Diamond in the United Kingdom are, for instance, currently closed and operations are suspended. But these facilities claim that exceptional access to instruments on-site might be allowed, based on urgent needs related to research on the novel coronavirus. The Deuteration and Macromolecular Crystallisation Support Lab (DEMAX) at the European Spallation Source (ESS) which is currently under construction, and MAX-Lab IV both located near Lund, Sweden have implemented strict measures of physical distancing, but the facilities are not yet closed. The PSI in Switzerland and BESSY II in Berlin similarly offer rapid access to their instruments for coronavirus related research both remotely and on-site.

Next to these efforts that try to provide access to their analytical instruments and experimental capacities during the current situation of a wide-ranging lockdown, it also needs to be borne in mind that the development of drugs and vaccines will require several months or years. To the extent that the current lockdown needs to be lifted sooner (or later), this will also provide these facilities with the opportunity to restart operation. The ILL, for instance, announced that additional capacities of crystallography will be completed after lockdown and that the facility plans two more experimental cycles planned during the year 2020. The Germany Jülich Centre for Neutron Science restarts probably between May and June 2020. [21] The situation is for instance similar for the ALBA synchrotron radiation source in Spain that currently restarted reduced operation.

It is clear that the science at these facilities will go on. But how? It seems unlikely that the facilities will host external research groups at the same frequency and size than they did before the outbreak of the pandemic. These groups often consist of dozens of researchers from a broad variety of countries. Many countries still have travel bans in place which complicates the effort of bringing these people together. Moreover, the architecture of the experimental spaces at these facilities is simply not suited to host a large number of researchers under the condition of physical distancing. At synchrotron radiation sources, for instance, researchers are often squeezed into so-called experimentation hutches and work stations where they control the experiment and handle the samples. This particular architecture cannot be modified to respond to current needs of physical distancing. One alternative could be to reduce the number of researchers within one group that come to the facility to conduct experiments while involving the other members via video conferencing or online meetings. But there is much to suggest that virtual participation cannot remedy the hands-on expertise and practical skills that are lost by not having these researchers on site. Another constraint could be that travel bans might not be lifted equally for all countries and regions at the same time. This could mean that research groups that are located in the same region or country as the facility might access the facility much easier (and earlier) than researchers from countries far away such as, for instance, the United States or China. Such a situation would not only run counter the basic operation principles of these facilities, namely that they are open to all researchers and that access is based on scientific peer-review. But it seems also apt to argue that this would also considerably impair the scientific quality of these collaborative efforts that thrive on the diversity of their research groups.

Concluding Discussion

The last decades have seen increasing political interest in Research Infrastructures. The EU Commission and national governmental agencies have put strategies and measures in place to monitor and evaluate the performance, productivity and outreach of Research Infrastructures and widely promoted them as “key drivers for European capacity building” [22]. Research Infrastructures in Europe became increasingly framed along common European science policy strategies and agendas. But the current pandemic situation lacks a common European political approach. National governments in Europe have all put very different measures in place ranging from the closure of their borders to a general curfew to which the Research Infrastructures they host are also subject to. Continuing the operation of these facilities hinges, among other aspects, also on the fact that each facility needs to specify and set-up its own safety measures and operation principles according to the legal framework of its host country.

This article provided a snapshot of how the current pandemic situation has changed working practices and operation modes at several single-sited Research Infrastructures. Although spotlight on life science research certainly is only one aspect among many others of a science-driven response to the novel coronavirus, it is a crucial one. To summarize: due to their characteristics as being single-sited and geographically bound, the current pandemic situation puts a limit on the performances and operation of European Research Infrastructures. Several of these facilities are closed until further notice. Operation is only maintained by a small team to allow for remote-access and/or only to the extent to prepare for a quick restart after governments begin to lift lockdown measures. This situation has two main consequences. First, these facilities cannot exploit their full experimental and scientific potential at this time. It can only be speculated how much new knowledge and expertise might be lost, particularly with regard to research on the new coronavirus, by not being able to conduct the full scope of research at these facilities and their unique experiments. Second, the current closure also has severe consequences for the general time schedule of experiments for the coming months, because all experiments need to be postponed or rescheduled. Waiting hours may be stretching to months and years for those experiments not directly tied to research on the new coronavirus.

It is clear that carefully prepared policy strategies for Research Infrastructures need to be discarded; roadmaps and agendas need equally put on hold. European policymakers now need to face a new reality that no one could prepare for, but which necessitates hands-on scientific efforts, rather than a spotlight on performance indicators and output assessments.