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January 21, 2010

Physicists unite

The following is a lightly-edited version of Research Fortnight's latest editorial on the STFC's recent cuts

At times, UK government science strategy appears to amount to keeping the dogs hungry, throwing them the occasional bone, then watching the pack calmly negotiate gnawing rights. Managing the scrap appears to have become the lot of the hapless Science and Technology Facilities Council. 

The rational view would seem to be that nuclear physics, which studies the properties of the atomic nucleus, has to be part of any balanced national science portfolio.  Not, it seems, if you are a scientist running the STFC.

The STFC's decision to remove the funding from three projects—CERN’s ALICE Large Ion Collider Experiment, the AGaTA Advanced Gamma Tracking Array, and the PANDA antiProton Annihilation project in Darmstadt—has potentially fatal implications for the UK nuclear community.

Last summer’s Ion review warned that more cuts could be terminal. That day might not be far off. Nuclear physics’ long-term funding is now a mere £5 million a year, down from nearly £10m a year (plus PhD studentships) in early 2007.

By any available metric, nuclear physics is an advertisement for excellence and value-for-money in UK science. Each of the three doomed projects was initially funded after rigorous international peer review. Moreover, in spite of its status as a fundamental science, nuclear physics can readily demonstrate high levels of impact.

AGaTA, for example, has direct applications in medical imaging and homeland security. The STFC’s last annual report described this “high priority” project, approved less than 18 months ago, in glowing terms.

The STFC stands accused of cutting nuclear physics by 29 per cent overall; three out of four current international research projects lose their funding. This compares with parallel cuts, including to international subscriptions, of 4 per cent, 6 per cent and 10 per cent for particle physics, space science and astronomy respectively.

So why has nuclear physics fared so badly? The difficulty the STFC faces is that the government has ordered it to make budget cuts. And it has found a small community that can’t make much noise when strangled. The nuclear physics research budget in 2009-10 was a trifling £9.4m supporting 56 scientists.

Figures about to be released by the NuPNET network of European nuclear physics funding agencies show that UK nuclear physics funding is well behind that of Poland, Romania or Spain.

In contrast, some 336 particle physicists get £136m, including £80m for CERN. Not that they are celebrating. They, too, will be affected by the ALICE decision, which follows the STFC’s December 2007 decision to pull out of the US-led CERN successor, the International Linear Collider.

In its defence, the council’s leadership says something had to give. An alternative response, however, might have been to display a little more backbone. Nuclear physics would not be in the position it finds itself in now had the STFC refused to accept the role of government executioner.

Some point out that the STFC has been blighted since its creation on April Fool’s Day, 2007, or before. The last Conservative government’s decision to divide the physical sciences into separate funding councils always seemed arbitrary. Nuclear physics, for one, could easily rejoin the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council—it may yet do so.

On the other hand, there is no rational reason why the STFC couldn’t fund the high performance computing and other infrastructure and facilities—used intensely by the physics community—that are currently signed off by EPSRC. 

Our physical scientists deserve better. They must heed University of Manchester physicist Brian Cox and unite. “We must stand together, put aside petty interdisciplinary in-fighting, raise the volume of our voices in the public arena, [and] build public support for this greatest of all enterprises.” 




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