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July 21, 2010

Greenish must go, says Oxford physicist

A respected Oxford physicist has called for Philip Greenish, chief executive of the Royal Academy of Engineering, to resign from the UK’s top particle physics funding body.

Brian Foster, a professor of experimental physics at Oxford, says that Greenish’s position at the Science and Technology Facilities Council, which controls particle physics funding, is untenable since the Academy called on the government to redirect funding away from physics to support engineering.

“Greenish’s position is clearly intolerable,” says Foster. “He’s in the position of being a member of the council of an organisation, all of whose Royal Charter aims he has rubbished.”

Foster, a former chairman of Institute of Physics Nuclear and Particle Physics Division, is the first senior physicist to go on the record on the subject. But many members of the IoP are understood to be furious with RAE members over what they see as a betrayal. Particle physicists are concerned that a member of the academy holds sway on a group that ultimately has control over their funding.

Foster has written to Greenish to warn him that he should either formally distance himself from the document or leave the STFC council.

He has also written to Michael Sterling, chairman of the STFC. Sterling has responded, saying that the academy’s position on particle physics does not necessarily preclude Greenish from making unbiased decisions about funding for the discipline.

The Academy’s submission to a consultation being conducted by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills ahead of this autumn’s comprehensive spending review has caused a rift between the two groups since its publication last week.

In the submission, the engineers say that particle physics makes only a “modest contribution to the most important challenges facing society today” and suggest that a disproportionate amount of funding goes into the field.

The submission makes a specific attack on CERN, claiming that because much particle physics research goes on abroad, the field makes a “lower contribution to the intellectual infrastructure of the UK compared to other disciplines”.

Foster describes the submission as “depressing in the extreme”.

“People don’t seem to have learned anything over the past 30 years. It seems to me an obvious thing. I thought we’d all learned that if science is to make progress we should all stick together and not start picking off various bits of science that you happen to think may not be particularly productive. That, in the end, doesn’t do anyone any good.”

The academy told Research Fortnight that Greenish does not wish to comment about the situation.

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Comments

Mr Greenish's views set out in response to the consultation launched by the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills are ill-considered, short-termist and parochial. Surely he is aware that the invention of the world wide web protocols occurred principally at CERN by the particle physics community? The high current, high frequency electromagnetic engineering developments for particle colliders and accelerators such as the LHC are right at the forefront of our capabilities and have spin-offs in medical, measurement and test engineering, as well as vacuum and superconducting technology. Also the whole of today's ICT industry (digital computers,cameras, communications,etc.) rests on the foundations of quantum theory.
And Mr Greenish has expressed a parochial view because he doesn't seem to realize the advantages basic science has had from the fact that it is and always has been an international endeavour.

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