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
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
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.
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.”