The snow that fell over Westminster today could not muffle the sound of an axe dropping rather heavily in a building behind the Abbey.
Here, the Science and Technology Facilities Council announced major cuts to its programme and confirmed that it is shifting cash away from nuclear and particle physics in order to focus support on areas that have been identified as government priorities.
The council’s five-year programme for 2010 to 2015 introduces a 25 per cent reduction in studentships and fellowships—an “unpalatable decision” that had to be made, according to Keith Mason. It also includes withdrawing from over 20 projects and a cut of 10 per cent from the grant funding used to exploit facilities. Jobs are also at risk at the Daresbury and Harwell science campuses as part of an attempt to save £11 million from the STFC’s internal budget in 2010-11.
Projects to be dropped include, ALICE at CERN, the UK Neutrino Factory and the New Light Source. But nuclear physics is particularly badly hit with two major projects, AGATA and PANDA, being dropped.
Nuclear physicists say that this amounts to a 52 per cent cut and have argued that the STFC is decimating their discipline at a crucial time. At today’s Westminster press conference, the council’s leaders said that they did not agree with a report that was submitted to them by Sue Ion, which argued that any cut to nuclear physics would threaten the UK’s ability to rebuild its nuclear power industry. They said that nuclear undergraduates would make up the backbone of the sector and that these students would not necessarily need to be taught by leading academics in the field—which many might see as being a rather short-term view.
The introduction of shared research programmes and noises within government about supporting a few select areas that will benefit the economy have fuelled concerns that the research councils are being pressured to invest in certain areas above others. The STFC’s decision today may well fuel these complaints. The council has elected to increase investments in the Diamond Light Source, which is an important instrument for life scientists, but will make cutbacks in many other areas to make up for it.
The other research councils have had to reach into their own pockets to ensure the future of the surviving facilities by providing the STFC with an additional £14 million to cover some of the costs in the coming year.
The council is also hoping to save £42 million by pulling out of space programmes, including the European Space Agency project Venus Express and the Nasa-led Cassini. How this will affect the budget to be awarded to the recently announced UK space agency is another question that will need to be answered.
In astronomy, it has confirmed that the UK will not stay in the Gemini telescope partnership after 2012, instead choosing to invest in the Square Kilometre Array and the European Extremely Large telescope.
The STFC admitted that the choices it has made could have serious repercussions for university departments and has said that it plans to work with them to manage the fallout, though it remains unclear what support, other than of the financial kind, will help them recover.
Science minister Paul Drayson has also said that he intends to help the STFC to overcome the problem which many believe has played a central role in these cutbacks. He says that he wants to find a better solution to the arrangement that currently sees the council paying for international subscriptions from its own budget, even if the cost escalates as the Pound fluctuates against the Euro and Swiss Franc. This could indicate that he intends to call on the Treasury to pay for them directly. We can expect his conclusions on the matter in February.