STEVE COWLEY is a proud man. “The UK is the second most productive research nation in the world after the US, but the US is five times the size of the UK,” he enthuses when asked about Science Vale. “Per head, nobody compares to us.”
It is a big claim but Mr Cowley – who is chief executive of the Atomic Energy Authority and former chairman of Science Vale – is proud of the success story unfolding at Science Vale, the umbrella organisation that has drawn togther what was formerly a loose cluster of research centres that grew in the early 2000s.
“We were concerned about how to make Oxford a place for the growth of hi-tech economy, bring better jobs to Oxfordshire and stimulate the economy,” he continues as he extols his hopes for the future.
“We have some of the largest labs in the UK – Rutherford Appleton is home to Diamond Light Source and Isis, Culham is home to the JET.
“We’re talking about £300m income a year, but even with startlingly-innovative companies like Oxford Instruments, it wasn’t recognised as a phenomenon, so the business of Science Vale UK was to recognise the whole A34 corridor in Oxfordshire.”
So Science Vale Oxford, made up of Culham Science Centre, Harwell Oxford campus and Milton Park, was ‘born’ in 2008.
Culham is now home to 22 businesses with about 1,000 employees and Harwell has 150 organisations, employing more than 4,500 people.
Milton Park, which already employs 7,000 people in 200 companies, plans to create an extra 5,500 jobs in a £250m expansion over the next 10 years.
Mr Cowley said: “There has been remarkable growth at Milton Park, about 15 per cent growth at Culham.
“The key thing is now we have got recognition from the government to push growth at Harwell and Culham.”
In the past year, Harwell has welcomed the government-funded Satellite Applications Catapult and the European Space Agency (ESA) as well as a £7m pledge of support from universities and science minister David Willetts.
A November report by the Department for Business Innovation and Skills declared that Harwell could become “a central hub of space activity in the UK”.
With Government funding, Harwell is now planning to create a new innovation centre to incubate small to medium enterprises (SMEs), while Culham is building an advanced manufacturing centre to develop remote-contolled robotic technology.
Mr Cowley said “The SMEs are the growth engine.
“We want Science Vale to have a local culture of investor-entrepreneurs. It is already here but could we double it? Treble it?
“The Government have said we need to rebalance the economy and be less dependent on the success of the financial sector.
“The preferred option is hi-tech business.”
He admits that whilst the UK was a leader in research, “in modern times we have had trouble converting that into engineering excellence. We feel that culture is growing in Oxfordshire.”
As if to prove this point, in March the Government’s Home and Communities Agency (HCA) announced a £42m loan to speed up home building at Didcot’s Great Western Park Estate, across the road from Milton Park.
Science Vale is already one of the most successful science hotspots in the country, with 13 per cent of research and development employment in South East England and four per cent of employment in England.
Announcing the creation of Science Vale Enterprise Zone in 2011, which gives start-up businesses a discount on their rates up to £55,000 a year, chancellor George Osborne said: “The region is home to some of the newest and fastest-growing businesses in high-performance engineering, biotechnology and medical instruments, and the Science Vale Enterprise Zone provides the opportunity to unlock the region’s full potential.”
Mr Cowley, who stepped down at the end of last year, has now passed the torch to former head of Oxford Instruments, Jim Hutchins, who is looking at how Science Vale can become even more friendly to business.
The perfect way to make energy
When not co-ordinating Science Vale, since 2008 Steve Cowley has been trying to create clean, efficient energy using fusion. “Fusion is trying to save the world,” he says.
“It is probably the perfect way to make energy but it is hard to do.
“If you take a laptop battery and a bath of water you have enough energy to power your life for 30 years, but the reaction has to be at 250million degress centigrade.”
In 1997, the Joint European Torus (JET) at Culham made 16 MW of energy through fusion.
In 2017, they are planning to break that record.
JET scientists’ experiments involve fusing lithium, as found in household batteries, and deuterium, “heavy water”, at 250 million degrees centigrade.
Mr Cowley added: “In 2017 we are going to do that experiment again and break our records.
“The new reactor currently being built in France is twice the size of JET, it will be the first self-sustaining fusion reactor meaning the fusion will keep the reactor at 250m C.
“It is alight, like a star.
“Stars are powered by fusion.”
And how big a deal would harnessing fusion power be?
“It would be an enormous deal. The energy market is worth seven trillion a year, and fusion could account for 50 to 70 per cent of that.”
The AEA is funded 300 million Euros for the next five years by the European Commission, while the UK supplies about £25m a year.
JET is due to reach the end of its life in 2020.
After that, the AEA scientists at Culham will dedicate themselves to a new project, designing the world’s first fusion power station.
Rocket to the stars
Scientists at Reaction Engines, Culham, are building Skylon, the world’s first space plane, able to get into orbit from a runway takeoff.
And, the firm says, none of its success would have been possible without being based at Culham .
Marketing manager Jeremy Nickless said: “Our position at Culham has been absolutely instrumental in our success.
“First of all, having the support of the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy (CCFE) in the early days of development was so important.
“A lot of test operations were done under contract by CCFE scientists.” One of those scientists, Mike Hood, is now head of operations and electrical engineering at Reaction Engines.
Mr Nickless said: “The sheer cost of doing that commercially would have been prohibitive, it was CCFE who supported us, not just financially, but enabling us to use their facilities.”
The CCFE Special Techniques group also helped Reaction develop the pre-cooler device which makes its SABRE rocket engine so revolutionarily powerful.
Mr Nickless added: “That never would have been possible without being here at Culham.”