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scientists react to STFC funding announcement

The Science and Technology Facilities Council today announced a review of funding priorities in UK science, which includes cuts to funding to key areas including particle physics. An array of physicists responded.

 

Prof Andy Fabian, President of the Royal Astronomical Society, said:

“With these cuts UK based researchers will struggle to retain their leading position in astronomy and space science.

“Astronomers in the UK are highly productive and deliver this excellence for a relatively low investment compared with their counterparts elsewhere. Research in astronomy is not an area where large ‘efficiency savings’ can be made without a detrimental impact on the quality of that work.

“Given the difficult economic times we live in, we recognise that public sector budgets are all under pressure. But these cuts are a result of the structural and financial problems that have beset STFC since its creation in 2007, rather than being a consequence of the current recession. These problems have led to an ongoing funding gap that now has to be plugged by cuts in the research base, particularly in the budgets for astronomy and particle physics.

“The RAS acknowledges the efforts made by the Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) and Research Councils UK (RCUK) to provide the increased resources needed for subscriptions for international projects as a result of changing exchange rates. We also welcome today’s commitment by the Science Minister, Lord Drayson, to examine the tensioning that arises from funding international science projects, large scientific facilities and UK grants within a single research council, and the negative impact this has on the funds available for facilities and researchers.

“Despite this, we are now seriously concerned at the effect the loss of so many smaller projects will have on the health and morale of physics groups in British universities. The Government has rightly recognised the strategic importance of science for a healthy and more diverse economy. Blue-skies research in subjects like astronomy is an essential component of that scientific base and cutting it now will make it harder for the UK to recover its international position once the economy recovers.

“We call on the Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) to take the opportunity to back blue-skies research, including astronomy, in the same way that it has increased its support for the life sciences. UK scientists are world leaders in this area and in recent years have attracted the brightest talent from across the globe to share our success. We urge the Government to plan for the long term and recognise that realising our shared goals depends at least in part on a sustained investment in a diverse science portfolio.

“The savings from cutting astronomy research are, in the scale of public expenditure, trivial. By contrast, the potential damage to one of the UK’s leading activities could be huge.”

 

Prof Paddy Regan, University of Surrey, said:

“Nuclear Physics has been singled out for massive cuts in the latest STFC Funding announcement. These out of proportion cuts have the potential to kill off the UK skills base in nuclear physics.

“The headline figure of £30 million over five years for support for nuclear physics in the STFC’s press statement, corresponds in fact to a £8M cut in projects which are already funded and up and running. This does not include the killing off of all 7 of the proposed future nuclear physics projects by the STFC at this time.

“This represents a massive 52% cut in nuclear physics funding, far more than the other STFC disciplines. Nuclear Physics is ‘the new boy’ in the STFC research council (formed by the merger of PPARC and CCLRC in 2007) and has clearly been ‘sidelined’ by a cartel for cuts which are way out of proportion to either what was expected or what the former PPARC particle physics and astronomy have suffered. To have this at a time when the UK is discussing a nuclear new build programme and addressing the nuclear waste issues is almost comical.

“The UK’s nuclear physics community heads a number of world leading research programmes, particularly at the new ‘isotope production facility’ FAIR in Darmstadt, Germany. The wanton destruction of the ‘already approved’ PANDA and AGATA projects is a massive embarrassment to the UK and dramatically hurts its competitiveness and leadership in this important area of fundamental science.

“The nuclear physics community have basically been ‘done in’ by the STFC, who seem intent on killing off nuclear physics as an academic pursuit in the UK. How this can be happening at a time of discussions of nuclear new build is incredible. Where does the STFC think the trained manpower that the UK in nuclear physics and associated instrumentation and measurement is going to come from? The UK already spends about 1/20 on nuclear physics research compared to France and Germany can we really be so wrong?

“By my calculations the cuts over five years correspond to reductions across the disciplines of:
Space: 10 %
Nuclear: 52%+ (including future projects)
Particle Physics: 5%
Astronomy: 11%

“The nuclear physics communities fears were that scientific debate and prioritisation would give way to ‘block voting’ within the STFC and these fears appear to be borne out. To say we are disappointed would be a massive understatement. These act of scientific vandalism must be challenged and overturned.”

 

Prof David Burgess, Director, Astronomy Unit, Queen Mary University of London, said:

“The Science Programme Prioritization announced by STFC represents a serious cut to both research and postgraduate training in Astronomy. The intention to reduce postgraduate studentships by 25% will damage the contribution made by Astronomy to scientific training at the highest level. Postgraduate Astronomy students go on, after qualification, to make a major contribution to the UK’s scientific workforce, with tremendous benefits to the economy. We know that Astronomy is a motivating and inspirational subject that draws students into studying science – and continuing into postgraduate research is part of that process.

“STFC has presented a well-constructed presentation of their plans, emphasizing future investment. There is also some good news, in that additional money is being provided in the short term to ensure that current grants are not terminated early. STFC has decided to concentrate on projects associated with the expensive international subscriptions. But in doing so, a number of smaller projects will be closed, despite returning good science. An example is the Cassini mission – a project in which Queen Mary astronomers are involved. Furthermore, buried in the bad news, is a reduction for already approved ongoing projects. The consequent narrowing and lack of balance in the science programme will reduce the breadth of astronomy in the UK, and may affect our ability to take part in future international collaborations.

“STFC has been forced into this situation by a combination of circumstances: a lower value of the pound which increases the cost of subscriptions to international organizations giving access to large telescopes and space missions; a funding hole gifted to STFC when it was formed by the merger of two research councils; and the Government’s current financial problems. Unlike the previous funding crisis, STFC has taken care to properly consult with the scientific community. But in the end the savings that STFC has had to impose will reduce the amount of high-quality Astronomy research done in the UK.”

 

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