22 Apr 2015   |   Viewpoint

Momentum needed to plug the skills gap in particle physics

EU training programmes in particle physics are ending at a time when the need for these skills is increasing. As a result, Europe risks losing ground in a field that is key to its competitiveness, says Carsten Welsch

Particle accelerators may be best known for their role in the study of the origins of time and laws of nature, but their other uses are numerous and growing.

They can create tumour-destroying beams to fight cancer; kill bacteria to prevent food-borne illnesses; lend a hand to chip manufacturers and help scientists improve fuel injection to make more efficient vehicles.

They are also gigantic, complex machines – sometimes taking up full buildings – and require highly skilled operators whose knowledge extends beyond a classroom understanding of the equation p = m x v, to embrace knowledge of how to apply accelerators in medicine and industry.

Little wonder then that a group of scientists is lobbying EU grant masters to put aside some cash to pay for the next generation of accelerator physicists. “At the moment, I don’t see any countries running training sessions,” says Carsten Welsch, head of the Liverpool Accelerator Physics Group at the UK’s Cockcroft Institute.

Welsch wants to see a dedicated fund for training in the EU Horizon 2020 research programme, a service he says is, “beyond the resources of a single organisation or nation.”

Building networks

There is a noisy band of bloggers who foresee the day a high-energy atom smasher begins sucking in surrounding matter faster and faster until it devours the Earth. But the real black hole we should be talking about is the skills one, said Welsch. “We’re talking about a shortage of several hundred scientists; the number of PhDs per year in the subject is much too low.”

Can CERN, the laboratory with the world’s best known particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider, do more? “It’s not a university,” Welsch, who worked for a time at its Geneva lab, replied. “[CERN] does work with universities but it shouldn’t be expected to take the lead here.”

His institute, a joint venture between the universities of Liverpool, Lancaster and Manchester, has managed three EU-backed particle accelerator training programmes, producing 42 research fellows, which Welsch notes is a relatively small number.

The backing, in the form of grants from the Marie Skłodowska-Curie programme, has paid off, said Welsch. “All of our fellows were recruited straight away, mostly into group leader positions.”

While the number of scientists working with accelerators is on the increase, it is an overstatement to say it is a particular strength of Europe, Welsch said. “It’s developing into a strength. For many years we were way, way behind Japan and the US.”

Fighting cancer

One growing application for particle accelerators is in the area of cancer treatment.

Traditional radiation therapy is more effective than drugs at killing cancer cells, but a lack of precision means it also kills healthy cells.

Proton beams fire a more precise dose and so theoretically are less damaging. The treatment, which Welsch says could be made available to thousands of patients in Europe, is used most often to treat brain tumours in young children whose brains are still developing. It can also be used to treat adult cancers which have developed near a place in the body where damage would cause serious complications, such as next to the eye. In the US, proton therapy is being used to treat prostate cancer.

The UK will soon have five proton beam facilities, all to be built in the next few years. The Czech Republic, Italy, Germany and Switzerland all have at least one facility already.

There is a strong economic argument, Welsch added. The UK’s National Health Service (NHS) currently spends tens of millions of pounds referring patients overseas for this treatment, mainly to the US or Switzerland. In 2013, 122 NHS patients were treated abroad at an average cost of around £100,000 per person.

Welsch is presenting his newly-trained graduates at a conference in Liverpool on 26 June, when he will also invite schools, the celebrity scientist Professor Brian Cox, and lab managers from Germany and France, to help get his message across.  

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