Synchrotron: Canadian Light Source 70 years in the making

Saskatoon Star Phoenix
Wed 20 Oct 2004
Byline: Gerry Klein

Where on Earth is Saskatoon, Saskatchewan," Gerhard Herzberg asked his Jewish wife Luise after receiving a letter from John Spinks of the University of Saskatchewan.

It was 1933, at the beginning of the Nazi rule in Germany, but the young Herzberg was a rising scientific star, specializing in crystallography and fundamental particle science.

Spinks had been a young professor at the University of Saskatchewan when the depression hit and its president, Walter Murray, was out of money and asked those faculty members who were single to either resign or take a year's sabbatical along with $500.

Spinks took advantage of the second option and spent much of the next year working under Herzberg, a brilliant, young German scientist who was gaining an international reputation for research on physics and spectroscopy.

The two roomed in the same house, spent their weekends calculating results of their work and co-wrote eight papers together.

But the dark clouds that had gathered over Germany in the 1930s cast a large shadow over their lives.

From small events great things come and it can be argued that the Canadian Light Source (CLS) -- the largest scientific laboratory built in Canada in a generation and the jewel in the country's innovation crown -- grew out of the serendipitous meeting of these two men, cast together through a mutual love of scientific exploration and, in today's climate, almost unimaginable hard times.

According to Gerhard Herzberg: An Illustrious Life in Science, written by Boris Stoicheff, the U of S was one of a handful of universities around the world willing and able to capitalize on Adolf Hitler's decision to pass the Law for the Restoration of the Career Civil Service.

This law, which required public servants considered to be non-Aryans to leave their jobs, convinced a number of the world's top physicists to look for opportunities abroad -- including Albert Einstein, who resigned his position with the Prussian Academy of Science and took a position with Princeton University in the U.S.

Herzberg had been on the faculty at the University of Gottingen, which was renowned for its physics.

He found many students and faculty at the university accepted Hitler's decrees and was shocked when the faculty of agriculture condemned James Franck, a Nobel Laureate who had won the first and second Iron Crosses in the First World War for bravery.

Franck went on to work on the Manhattan Project.

Although Herzberg was a German, and could prove it, his decision to remain with his wife meant he was considered a second-class citizen and was denied the right to teach German students.

In 1933, in the midst of the upheaval brought on by the Nazis, Herzberg received the letter from Spinks, a scientist in Saskatoon, asking for permission to work in the German scientist's already world famous laboratory.

Within two years of the two scientists working together and becoming friends, Spinks was able to repay the Herzberg's hospitality.

As the situation in Europe deteriorated, Spinks began to lobby Canadian universities to accept the brilliant scientist. McGill had no interest and the University of Toronto -- the only one in Canada with a laboratory that had the equipment Herzberg needed -- didn't have the will or money.

In 1935, Murray whole-heartedly accepted the German scientist under a two-year contract, paid for by the Carnegie Foundation. Within months of his arrival, however, Herzberg had so impressed the people at the U of S that he was offered a full professorship and (for that time) a huge raise.

With the help of a $1,500 grant from the American Philosophical Society, Herzberg built a spectrograph.

The German scientist fell in love with the community that so willingly adopted him at such a dark period of history. Although he was on the U of S faculty for less than 10 years, he never severed his connections with Saskatoon or with Spinks, a man who would come to be president of the university.

But his love -- and talent -- for fundamental research forced him to seek other opportunities. He eventually moved to Chicago but his love for Canada was too great, and in 1947 Herzberg he was recruited back to Ottawa to take over the senior position in physics at the National Research Council. In 1971, the year his wife Luise died, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry.

According to Michael Hayden, a professor emeritus of history who has written extensively about the U of S, Herzberg's time in the university played into -- and helped develop -- the institution's strong suit. Innovation breeds innovation and talent attracts talent. Herzberg's work was recognized around the world and it became easier for the U of S to recruit scientists.

Science was always at the core of the university, Hayden said recently. In fact, it wasn't until the 1960s that the university began to build office space for, and aggressively recruit in, the social sciences and humanities.

According to a history of the Saskatchewan Linear Accelerator, the forerunner of the CLS, the post-war period saw the U of S in the forefront of nuclear physics in Canada.

"In 1948, Canada's first betatron (and the world's first used in the treatment of cancer) was installed on campus. It was used for research programs in nuclear physics, radiation chemistry, cancer therapy and radiation biology."

In 1951, Molly Birtsch, a 43-year-old mother of four, became the first patient treated with the world's first non-commercial cobalt-60 therapy unit, an experimental cancer therapy pioneered in Saskatoon that improved survival chances for many types of cancer almost overnight.

With this unit, research was undertaken in the areas of radiological physics, radiation chemistry and the effects of high-energy radiation on plants and animals.

Forty years later the strength of the physics department and close proximity of scientists working on plants and animals served as the trump card in negotiating a place for the CLS.

By the end of the 1950s, a survey of scientists in North America rated the U of S among the Top 10. And whether it was the institution's reputation or the determination of the scientists, this was used to lever more money out of senior governments, Hayden said.

In 1946, as Herzberg was being recruited to conduct research in the United States, the U of S in turn brought in Leon Katz as a replacement. The son of a Polish immigrant family, Katz had earned his PhD at the California Institute of Technology -- an institution that was home to a number of Nobel laureates.

Katz was in the group that brought in the betatron, and by the end of the 1950s -- as Spinks took over the presidency of the university, Katz went to work to make the U of S home to the linear accelerator (LINAC).

The linear accelerator allowed researchers to gain a better understanding of the inner workings of the atom. To win, Katz not only had to convince the National Research Council of its potential (by then Herzberg was a top official at the council and Canada's prime minister, John Diefenbaker, was an alumnus of the university), he also had to convince Saskatchewan's socialist premier Tommy Douglas to put up $250,000 of the $1.75-million price tag.

Katz's commitment to the university, and friendship with the premier, no doubt helped him stick-handle through the political battle to land the LINAC. When the announcement was made in 1961 that the LINAC would be constructed at the U of S, it was portrayed as the next logical step on the university's research path, according to university documents detailing its history.

It was designed and built by Varian Associates, from Palo Alto, Calif. -- home to Stanford University, which has a synchrotron of its own.

But Hayden believes the very success the U of S was having in attracting government grants planted the seeds for decades of decline. Spinks saw the U of S as a Canadian version of the University of California, with campuses in Regina and perhaps other Saskatchewan cities.

He went on an aggressive hiring spree, bringing in hundreds of faculty, and embarked on a construction boom that hadn't been seen before and, until recently, since.

To convince governments to fund the expansion, Spinks spoke of the economic potential the university would play in the province.

"He promised jobs," Hayden said.

The idea was, the better educated Saskatchewan's population, the greater the likelihood for economic development.

When the promise failed to materialize, governments began to retrench funding. The university went through an extended period of cutbacks and economic stagnation -- a situation that existed across the country.

By the 1990s, the declining interest in sub-atomic science in Canada, and the need to refurbish the aging LINAC, convinced the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) to phase out use of the LINAC.

In 1995, Dennis Skopik, its director, saw the handwriting on the wall, Hayden said.

Hayden heard of NSERC's decision during a college of arts and sciences faculty meeting, when Skopik cornered the dean and spelled out the need to pursue a lifeline for the faculty and technicians working in the LINAC.

His idea was to convert the LINAC, designed for sub-atomic (and often esoteric) research, into a third-generation synchrotron, the most versatile and practical research laboratory on the planet.

His plea caught the attention -- and imagination -- of then- U of S president George Ivany and Dennis Johnson, the associate vice-president of research.

The odds of success were dire. Roy Romanow (also a U of S alumnus) had just taken the helm of a province that was on the brink of bankruptcy. The newly elected Liberals were struggling with the same deficit demons in Ottawa.

Ivany began to assemble a group to plan a strategy, put together the technical information needed for the conversion of the LINAC as well as plot the conversion of the politicians.

The team included Doug Richardson, a Saskatoon lawyer with a deep love for the university and with powerful connections in the Liberal Party of Canada.

Skopik, Johnson and Richardson formed the SWAT team, with Skopik dealing with issues of science, Richardson lobbying the politicians and Johnson acting as master strategist, Richardson said in a recent interview.

"I didn't understand the science of the project," Richardson said. "I got caught up in Dennis (Johnson's) enthusiasm."

Hayden is much less enthused by the project. From almost the very creation of the U of S, there has been a tension between the "relative places and consequent funding of the sciences and the humanities," he says in a history paper he has written of the institution.

"The struggle continues into the present."

That struggle intensified in the last decade with the university's decision to re-invent itself as a research-intensive institution. The CLS is central to that goal.

"Today the spread of research is still uneven across departments and colleges, but involvement in research by every faculty member has now become a requirement in what is now unflinchingly described as a research-intensive university," Hayden says.

Hayden worries about what this will mean to the future of the humanities on campus, and the ability of faculty to produce well-rounded students.

"It is ironic that the campaign to obtain this significant piece of research equipment (the CLS) began with the well-intentioned efforts of the head of the campus-based Saskatchewan Linear Accelerator to find jobs for his research staff when (NSERC) announced it would no longer fund the accelerator."

But the battle to get a synchrotron in Canada began well before Skopik was faced with the imminent mothballing of the LINAC. For Michael Bancroft, a renowned researcher from the University of Western Ontario in London, Ont., the dream of establishing a Canadian-based synchrotron began more than 30 years ago.

"In October 1972, Gerhard Herzberg and several of his close NRC spectroscopic colleagues (along with the director of the Madison, Wisconsin Tantalus SR facility, Ed Rose) attended the first Canadian workshop organized by Bill McGowan on the uses of synchrotron radiation (SR) at the University of Western Ontario," Bancroft wrote in an article for the National Research Council on the history of the CLS.

At the time there were few scientists in Canada who understood or cared about synchrotron research (a conference on synchrotron research held in Laval, Que., in 1976 attracted only 11 Canadian scientists), but the potential was compelling and over the years a growing army of them began to form -- many based at Western and renting foreign facilities to conduct their work.

The meeting with Herzberg and other spectroscopic researchers convinced Bancroft of the value of this line of research. In 1976, he became a founding member of a committee of scientists to promote its use.

"It was obvious even then to nearly all the committee members that SR research was going to be very important for Canadian science and Canada should be a major player in SR research along with all the other G-7 countries that already had facilities," Bancroft wrote.

In the late 1970s, Canada built a soft X-ray beamline at an existing synchrotron facility in Madison, Wis., through the Canadian Synchrotron Radiation Facility (CSRF).

Bancroft was appointed director of the CSRF, a position he held until 1999, when he became director of the CLS during most of its critical construction period.

Although the CSRF eventually grew to three beamlines, by 1990 it was clear Canadian researchers required a more powerful tool. The Canadian Institute for Synchrotron Radiation (CISR) was formed and lobbied hard for the funding to come up with a made-in-Canada design, without much success.

In 1994, NSERC formed a committee to study the proposal, and it drew up a plan for a $100-million facility, Bancroft says. However, there was no source of funding for such a "big-science" proposal.

When it came to approaching the federal government for money, the name "big-science project" became its own liability, Richardson said. The finance minister at the time, Paul Martin, was struggling to wrestle the country's deficit to the ground, and big science spoke of costly, esoteric projects with out-of-control budgets.

Besides, Canada really didn't have a mechanism to fund such a project. However, Martin quickly recognized the need for a Canadian-owned synchrotron and the economic edge the country could get if it advanced its innovation agenda, Richardson said.

From that grew the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI), an arm's-length foundation that would be fed federal dollars to be used to rebuild the country's research capacity. There is some debate over whether the CLS became the raison d'etre for the CFI or whether it was dependent on the granting council, Richardson said.

Whatever the case, however, the creation of this foundation came with its own pitfalls, he said. Its first president, David Strangway, had been president of the University of British Columbia and firmly believed the synchrotron should be built in that province, he said.

But by the time Richardson and the U of S SWAT team entered the competition for a synchrotron, the field was already full and the competition fierce -- particularly from Western.

"This little university that could had to defeat 18 other universities in order to land the CLS," Richardson said.

In spite of being home to the LINAC, a facility that would serve as the engine driving the new synchrotron, the U of S was facing the challenge identified by Herzberg half a century earlier -- "Where on Earth is Saskatoon, Saskatchewan."

And this challenge was formidable, Richardson said.

When an international committee of scientists was formed to review Canada's proposal and make recommendations on the design and location, one member from Chicago insisted there was no need to travel to Saskatoon in the dead of winter before deciding.

He had visited Western and was convinced this should be the place.

"We were desperate," Richardson said. "The peer-review process was set to go right off the rails."

But one trip to Saskatoon -- in January -- convinced the committee member otherwise, he said.

"When he came he was so impressed by the (LINAC) and the people working there that he changed his mind," he said.

From the beginning Richardson, Johnson and Skopik struggled to change the prevailing view of the U of S and its host province as being a place of wheat, Richardson said.

That battle required someone with deep connections in Ottawa and a greater understanding of the university. Richardson found his ally in Ralph Goodale, now the country's finance minister but throughout the battle this province's leading political crusader on the file.

And Goodale was faced with challenges of his own, Richardson said. Liberals in Regina questioned the wisdom of having Saskatchewan's cabinet minister spend so much energy and political capital on a project based in Saskatoon.

Richardson's connection with Goodale stretches back decades, including a time when Goodale was leader of the Saskatchewan Liberals and without a seat in the legislature. Richardson would host him as he tirelessly crossed the province in endless campaigning.

One impression Goodale has left on the Saskatoon lawyer is of his dogged determination. When Goodale's mind is made up, Richardson said, there is little that will sway him.

"Pivotal in (the bid to land the project) was the role of both Martin and Goodale," Richardson said. "You can't underestimate what Ralph Goodale did, and Ralph was in a difficult spot because everyone in Regina was saying 'Well, why is this great project coming to Saskatoon? What about Regina? What's in it for Regina?' "

That argument spread to the provincial cabinet, which was in heated discussions about ways to stave off bankruptcy, Richardson said.

"Romanow was facing the greatest financial crunch any government ever had," he said. "I know there were fights in cabinet (with some members saying), 'You have a roaring deficit and you want to do what?' "

And if the battle within the province was intense, it was nothing to what Johnson, Skopik and Richardson faced on their many trips to Central Canada to sell the idea.

At one point a senior official in the Department of Industry, the department responsible for the country's innovation agenda, and a key figure to winning approval for the project, told the trio from Saskatoon he believed in the importance of a synchrotron.

"Then he looked at me and -- I'll never forget -- he says, 'Not in my lifetime will this project be built in Saskatchewan,' " said Richardson.

In his opinion -- and it could easily become a make-or-break opinion -- the facility should have been built in the Montreal-to-Mississauga corridor, Richardson said in an interview with Ken Coates, a former dean of arts and sciences at the U of S who is writing a book on the CLS with the working title Prairie Lights.

"Saskatoon wasn't even on the radar screen," he said.

This attitude in Ottawa became a hallmark of the negotiations, Richardson said.

"We had another meeting one day with Jon Gerrard (then secretary of state for science, research and development)," Richardson said.

Although Gerrard was born and raised in Saskatoon, in the mid-1990s he was the MP for the Manitoba riding of Portage-Interlake. The SWAT team approached him after Gerrard's father phoned Skopik and told him he could help.

"(Gerrard) is a quiet but efficient minister," Richardson said. "The meeting just starts and his assistant starts in telling the minister that there is excess capacity in the (research) system. Skopik corrects him once.

"Then (the assistant) makes his big mistake. He says to the minister -- not knowing he was born and raised in Saskatoon -- 'But, at the end of the day, you couldn't possibly conceive putting this on the University of Saskatchewan campus.'

"It was obvious this was a big mistake. The minister was prudent and didn't say anything at the time but (the assistant) got sidelined from the discussion right after that, although we knew he was always there and sniping from below the current, causing problems with us."

But while opposition based on Saskatoon's geographic location was rife in Central Canada, the SWAT team had its supporters as well.

One of these was Dennis Mills, a Toronto-based Liberal MP who was also a staunch Chretienite. His support was critical because there was always the underlying danger of having the project get caught up in the internecine battle that was tearing at the Liberal party as Martin vied for Jean Chretien's job.

By the late 1990s the Saskatchewan team had also gained the support of Bancroft and other researchers from Western and the Canadian Institute for Synchrotron Research. The international scientific peer-review committee came out full score in favour of the U of S, based on the existing LINAC, the strength of the university's physics department and the people working there.

No sooner had that decision been made when Bancroft jumped on board the Saskatoon-based CLS bandwagon. He was such a great supporter, in fact, that soon after Goodale and then-industry minister John Manley announced funding for the project, Bancroft was chosen as its director during the design and construction phase.

But even with the Ontario support, the battle was far from won. Canada was also considering a number of other big-ticket science projects, including an international consortium to smash atoms proposed to be located near an Ontario nuclear reactor.

Mills, who was a Parliamentary secretary, put his weight behind the potential of a synchrotron, particularly to help with research for the generic drug companies in the Toronto area, Richardson said.

In order to beat the geographic handicap, proponents for the synchrotron began to walk officials through the U of S, he said.

"I remember the afternoon when Manley came. It was a Sunday afternoon and I couldn't help but notice how tired he looked and that he would much rather have been at home," Richardson told Coates.

"He just sort of went through the motions of the tour, but at the end of the day he was the minister who signed off on it."

This political intrigue was upsetting for Skopik and, at times, his impatience showed, Richardson said. Johnson, however, was a strategist and had the ability to bring the community on side. Ivany served the same function on campus, where the notion of bringing in such a large research facility was met (depending on which department was asked) by rabid enthusiasm or out-and-out dread.

The former U of S president took over the university in 1989, just as it was entering a prolonged period of deep provincial cuts. The CLS gave him an opportunity to build a legacy other than of restraint.

"There's no doubt the board of governors was on (Ivany's) case big time," Richardson said. "But he just kept pushing back and pushing back."

The cuts, combined with the fear of what would become of the institution's tenuous budget should senior governments fail to pick up the entire operating costs, also caused an uprising on faculty and with many of the students.

If the CLS was to be built at the U of S, it would represent a sea of change for the province and the institution, Richardson said. It fell on Ivany and his successor, Peter MacKinnon, to turn the tide within the university community.

While political support built slowly, both on the national stage and on campus, the challenge to bring Saskatoon on board went a lot smoother. The proponents made a bid at council for support and came away with $1 million -- unprecedented local support for a national science project anywhere in the world.

Johnson had one foot in the university community and one in Saskatoon's business world, where he had been president of the chamber of commerce. A team was created to manoeuvre the process through the business community.

From the beginning the committee responsible for getting the CLS to the U of S (dubbed the Breakfast Cabinet) met Tuesday mornings in Ivany's office. They would use those meetings to provide mutual support, keep informed about where things were going and learn who was doing what.

There were times, however, when it appeared all efforts would fail. In November 1998, just four months before the project was announced and well past the 11th hour of getting the proposal together, the CFI board informed the proponents it wasn't prepared to accept the LINAC as part of the proposal.

This left the Saskatoon bid $28.6 million shy of its share of the project. Proponents had asked for $71.3 million from CFI -- estimating the project would cost $178.2 million. Dropping the value by $28.6 million -- the size of the LINAC grant -- meant CFI's 40 per cent contribution was $12 million less than budgeted.

Former mayor Henry Dayday learned of the shortfall on a Thursday through The StarPhoenix and, with the ardent support of former councillor Peter McCann, immediately went to work to convince his fellow councillors to up their contribution (which had already grown to $1.2 million from the initial $1 million pledge).

When the regular Tuesday meeting took place in Ivany's office the next week, the committee was greeted with a front-page headline suggesting the city would double its contribution as long as the other partners were in.

"We asked around the meeting who was responsible, but none of us had thought to ask the city," Richardson said. "They (councillors) had done it on their own."

This didn't pull the proposal out of the fire, however. The committee caught Martin on a cross-Canada flight and detoured him to the Saskatoon airport, where a special clandestine meeting was held.

Ivany, the SWAT team, Goodale and Bernard Michel, head of Cameco Corp. and chair of the committee, were among those gathered at the airport. Martin was absolutely committed to the project and a fan of the Saskatchewan proposal, but he made it clear he was finance minister and didn't write the cheques, Richardson said.

"At that meeting he dealt directly with (Michel) -- he pointed out the federal government was on side, the provincial government was there and even the local government was there, but he wanted to know where was industry," he said.

Martin affirmed his belief that Canada had to advance its innovation potential in order to compete globally, Richardson said. The future prime minister pointed out, however, that this particular project was favoured because it was important to Goodale and "he said something like, 'I owe Ralph.' "

Martin left the meeting without making a commitment, but a couple of days later Goodale phoned to say Western Economic Diversification would be increasing its commitment.

It was clear the provincial government was on board. It began to send officials along with Richardson's SWAT team to help lobby Central Canada for the project -- and (perhaps just as importantly) helped defray some of the travel costs, he said.

And the support in Saskatoon was almost unquestioned. The project became what Richardson called "taxi talk" -- that is, anyone who took a cab in Saskatoon could learn the fundamentals of synchrotron science and what potential it held for the city.

For months the community was on edge, waiting for an announcement that seemed too big to be true. On the morning of March 31, 1999, citizens awoke to the headline Synchrotron approved: Senior cabinet ministers expected to make announcement today.

At a gala press conference that day, then industry minister Manley, Goodale and Strangway, the head of the CFI, announced the seas in Saskatoon had truly changed.

According to the press release announcing the event, "the CLS represents an unprecedented level of collaboration among governments, universities, and industry in Canada," In addition to the U of S, 18 Canadian universities endorsed the project on behalf of the 300 users (at that time).

Within a month Skopik announced he was leaving Saskatoon to take a position at Jefferson's Laboratory in Virginia. Skopik told The StarPhoenix he decided not to stay on as director of the Saskatoon facility because his expertise is in subatomic particles, a science that needs a linear accelerator such as the old, about-to-be-decommissioned LINAC. Besides, he argued, the head of the CLS should be a researcher who specializes in using such a facility.

Bancroft was chosen for the job and soon moved to Saskatoon, where he oversaw the remarkable transformation of a piece of prairie on the U of S campus into Canada's flagship research facility.

But the announcement didn't end the controversy. Saskatoon is still considered a remote location to most potential users and proponents worry this may water down the impact the CLS could have on Canada's innovation agenda.

"It's important that people realize this project will have a massive impact," Strangway said in an interview before retiring as CFI's director. "It's bringing people back to Canada and allowing others to stay here and do research they never could have dreamed of before."

The synchrotron scientific family is a relatively small one, and scientists don't worry so much about a facility's location as the potential it presents for their research. That potential, based on one of the most powerful new facilities in the world, has allowed the U of S to attract some of the top scientists in the world -- including its current director, Bill Thomlinson, who succeeded Bancroft.

Attracting Thomlinson was critical for the facility, Coates said. His stature in the scientific community is a major force in attempts to recruit other top researchers to the U of S.

In that sense, Thomlinson carries the same tradition begun by Herzberg when his presence in the remote prairie city showed there was more to Saskatchewan than wheat.

And just like Herzberg, Thomlinson has become a major ambassador for Saskatoon, gushing about the city, its lifestyle, citizens and potential on his many trips to facilities around the world.

Its success continues to hinge, however, on a secure long-term source of operating money. The federal government has stepped forward recently with a pledge to bridge operating funds until the latter part of this decade, but the university community's concerns that this one facility will eat the institution alive will continue to simmer until the funding is set in stone.

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