University

KVI-CART astounded and perplexed

Reorganisation? In this economy?

The university board of directors says the KVI-CART has to be restricted. The institute at Zernike which houses the particle accelerator, has been haemorrhaging money for years. But if the institute needs more money, why were they prevented from signing lucrative contracts?
By Christien Boomsma / Photos Felipe Silva / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen

On 15 January, the RUG received a letter that made Helsinki Institute for Physics project leader Tuomas Grahn and programme director Ari Jokinen livid – with good cause.

The Fins had already been in negotiations with the KVI-CART in Groningen for two years. The KVI-CART, which is not affiliated with any university faculties but reports directly to the university board, had agreed to build a high-tech part for the FAIR accelerator in the German city of Darmstadt. It was a giant project that would have cost the international community upward of 2 billion euros and was a million euro commission for the KVI-CART.

But then with a single letter, the board of directors cancelled the project.

‘The consequences are drastic’, the Fins responded. ‘In short, this would delay the completion of one of the critical instruments of FAIR GmbH and put Finnish contribution for that in risk. Naturally such an event would have negative impact on the research community in Finland, the Netherlands, and elsewhere. We find your decision unacceptable and request you reconsider.’

International contracts

So why is the board of director blocking a lucrative contract that would lead to international collaborations? It’s not the first time something like this has happened. The KVI-CART has come close to signing similar contracts in the past, but these, too, were cancelled before they could go ahead.

We find your decision unacceptable

According to the board, they were canceled because the research institute needs restructuring. ‘We don’t want to take on long-term commitments that would require us to maintain the current infrastructure’, said Jan de Jeu in a University Council meeting.

In this case, he was referring to the gigantic AGOR cyclotron that was built at the back of the Zernike lot in the seventies and is used to accelerate atomic nuclei. The infrastructure also includes a workshop for the technicians and draughtsmen who keep the accelerator going, and high tech equipment for organisations such as space agency ESA.

Why does the board want it restructured?

Pride and joy

That’s easily, says De Jeu: the institute, once the RUG’s pride and joy, has been haemorrhaging money for years. That can’t just keep happening, he says. And a 2017 review committee determined that the particle accelerator wasn’t being used enough to justify costs. On top of that, nuclear physics aren’t ‘hip’ anymore, which means the nuclear and hadron physics research group probably isn’t likely to bring in enough money in the future, either. On top of the money question, the board also feels the various research groups aren’t collaborating enough. So, he says, it’s time to fix this.

But the institute’s staff, approximately forty scientists and technicians, are perplexed by this turn of events. In 2016, the board of directors approved a strategic plan to keep the particle accelerator operational for another decade. The institute and the board agreed: the institute’s progress and viability would be re-evalutaed in 2021. In light of this agreement, the institute’s staff even invested new money in the accelerator.

‘It’s all gone topsy-turvy’, technician Oscar Kuiken says, speaking for the entire staff. ‘I think it’s astonishing that the board is using the fact that we have fewer reserves as a justification for reorganisation, while they also created the conditions for us to make investments.’

Reset

But those investments are the cause of the deficit, says professor of nuclear physics Nasser Kalantar. ‘After the 2013 restructuring, we agreed to stop investing in AGOR. But if we had, we would be in the black. We considered the new 2016 plans a reset.’

According to the new plans – which the board approved – they would re-invest in AGOR . Kalandar explains that the particle accelerator, which costs 1.5 million euros a year just to maintain, is more than worth it. ‘AGOR isn’t old’, he says. ‘It’s a teenager. And it’s good for another twenty or thirty years.’

AGOR is good for another twenty or thirty years

In addition, AGOR is just as good as, say, the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland. ‘There are only three accelerators of this kind in the world, that can accelerate both light and heavy nuclei.’

ERC grant

So the institute made grand plans for the KVI-CART and AGOR. As far as they knew, the review committee was happy with these plans, which helped assistant professor Julia Even get several necessary grants: 425 thousand euros from research financier NWO in 2017, and a prestigious 1.8 million euro ERC grant in 2018. The plans depended on the accelerator.

In the meantime, they could also earn money through commercial radiations for car manufacturers or space agency ESA.  They’ve cornered that market; the other two accelerators of this kind are all booked up, Kalantar says. ‘If AGOR runs commercially for two months, we could cover half of the maintenance costs.’

Easy-peasy.

Knighthood

And even the deficits – which can be chalked up to several other things besides the investments – weren’t that big a deal. For example, the salary of a professor working for the NOW, which was only a small a drain on the budget. Or the large but one-time outage in 2017, which resulted in losing a slew of commercial radiations. Or the fact that KVI-CART overpaid the RUG financial centre FSSC by three hundred thousand euros, which is money they will eventually get back.

And so the KVI-CART was feeling pretty good about their financial situation and even threw a party. As a cherry on top, Kalantar was awarded a knighthood in April of last year for being an internationally-recognised ‘groundbreaking scientist in the field of inter-particle forces’.

It’s inexplicable!

But in October 2018, everything changed when De Jeu visited the institute to discuss a steering committee report on the future of KVI-CART. While the research at the institute was rated ‘good’ to ‘excellent’, the report also said it lacked collaboration and unity.

And so the steering committee aimed to find the ‘best organisational structure for each research line, the technology and the technological knowledge of KVI-CART to create sustainability for the activities and the staff involved’.

Axed

What is their solution? Move the astrophysicists to the Kapteyn Institute at the Faculty of Science and Engineering and transfer the medical physicists to the UMCG, preferably accompanied by the accelerator and as many technicians as possible. The nuclear and hadron physics group, the largest of the three, would just be axed entirely.

The board of directors started negotiations with FSE and the UMCG about embedding the two groups and blocked contracts with foreign institutions, including the Helsinki Institute of Physics. Reorganisation was officially on the agenda.

‘It’s inexplicable’, says Harry Timersma, president of the employee council. ‘That scientific report was critical, sure, but in a positive way. They’re just looking for an excuse to shut us down.’

‘We’ve done much of the overdue maintenance and we’ve been getting bulk reservations out the wazoo’, says Kuiken, who is mystified by the decision. ‘We’re doing really well!’

Self-fulfilling prophecy

‘First they allow us to make investments and then they block us from entering into contracts? That’s a self-fulfilling prophecy’, says Maarten Goldberg, union spokesperson for the RUG’s employee organisation.

Rumours are flying about what the board’s motivations really are. ‘We feel like some things are being kept from us’, says Timersma.

Goldberg suspects the board of directors wants to get rid of the KVI-CART ‘service’. ‘De Jeu is a proponent of centralisation and wants to push this through as quickly as possible. But it’s a slap in the face of someone like Kalantar. ‘You could even call it scientific character assassination.’

We feel like things are being kept from us

They also think there might be some personal conflicts between FSE and KVI-CART. ‘Julia Even has a personal grant. I bet you she won’t have any trouble transferring to FSE’, Goldberg says.

Skeptical

The university council is also skeptical about the plans, and refused to issue a positive recommendation in January. The board of directors refused to promise that no one would be fired, and is still negotiating with the UMCG. What happens if the UMCG decides they have no interest in taking over the particle accelerator? Or what if they don’t want the technicians that come with it?

Goldberg says that publicly axing the entire nuclear physics division would cause a downward spiral. ‘The technicians are extremely loyal. But they’re very popular and they could just leave and start their own company.’

And since the technicians each have their own speciality, each one of them is crucial. No technicians: no AGOR. No AGOR: no Julia Even with her ERC research, and no research in radiation biology – which is a major focus of the UMCG proton therapy project.

Clarity

Staff and students want clarity: on finances, on future prospects, and on how the KVI-CART itself feels about restructuring. They also want assurances that no one will be forced out.

Our competition would love it

‘Reorganisation is fine’, says Laurence Gormley with the science faction. ‘But we need good reasons and proper information. There are three research groups here and the only one that is doing well is the one that might get axed? That’s just weird.’ It’s an ‘extreme measure to destroy and a group that works well’, he says. ‘Our competition would love it.’

Personnel faction member Dirk-Jan Scheffers isn’t convinced either. ‘What problem are they solving here? They claim the KVI is operating at a loss, but even if that’s true – how is restructuring a solution?’

Clear message

‘The institute is unparalleled. We shouldn’t just throw that away, we should do what we can to keep it operating for a long time to come, says Gijs Verhoeff with SOG.

Besides, there’s another option, which Kalantar calls an ‘elegant solution’: the 2017 review committee suggested setting up an interfaculty institute as an alternative for the KVI-CART. ‘We might be able to rebuilt what’s currently being destroyed.’

But De Jeu is against it. ‘It won’t work in Groningen’, he says. The board of directors can expect a negative recommendation from the university council, unless they’re able to convince the council next month.

What happens if the recommendation is negative?

The board could just ignore it. But would it be wise to disregard such a clear message? ‘We want to work with the board of directors’, Gormley emphasises. ‘We’re not here to thwart anything, but we have to be a watchdog.’

If the board of directors goes ahead in spite of everything, it would be ‘a brave decision’, he says. ‘Because Yantai has shown us what happens when you jump the gun.’

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