Page last updated at 14:10 GMT, Wednesday, 9 April 2008 15:10 UK

'Black hole' in UK science funding

Susan Watts, Science Correspondent
By Susan Watts
BBC Newsnight, science editor


Watch Jodrell Bank radio telescope in action

The young man at the back of the room got a big clap. "I'm a PhD student in solar physics. Why, in the current climate, should I and other students take the risk of continuing to do research in this area?" he'd asked the panel.

Nicholas Owen, from the solar theory group at St Andrews University, summed up the mood last week of astronomers gathered in Belfast for the annual meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Some, especially the younger ones, were resigned to having to get out of astronomy altogether.

Astronomy and fundamental physics in the UK are in the midst of their worst funding crisis for decades.

These are the scientists trying to make sense of the very big and the very small - the stars and the galaxies of the Universe beyond Earth, and the sub-atomic particles that make up everything on it.

That might seem esoteric, but as another solar physicist pointed out, his work on the activities of the Sun will help us to understand climate change or make communications satellites work better.

Physicists working on huge particle accelerators that smash electrons into each other are trying to create new light sources so focussed they can target cancers deep inside someone's brain - tumours it's too dangerous to treat with today's X-ray techniques. This is the type of science that created the iPod. All this is under threat from cuts.

Brian Cox explains how the funding crisis is hitting UK science

At the Belfast astronomy meeting, it was as if I'd stepped back in time to the 1980s. One of the first articles I ever wrote back then was for a series in New Scientist magazine called "Research in Peril".

The New Labour government vowed to rejuvenate science and put the UK back on track to create a "knowledge-based economy", as Gordon Brown is fond of putting it. And science in general is in relatively good health these days - getting closer to the level of funding it deserves.

Yet since last December, once again, we've seen senior astronomers and senior scientists from fundamental physics having to speak out to defend their subjects. So what's gone wrong?

The crisis has its roots in the merger last year of two of the government quangos that run UK research into one superquango, the Science and Technology Facilities Council, or STFC.

Ministers promised there'd be no reduction in funding, but with the Comprehensive Spending Review of December 2007 came news that although science had done well overall, the STFC was in dire straits.

Professor Martin Rees
The funding of the physical sciences is at a precarious state
Prof Martin Rees

The STFC has so much of its budget tied up in long-term international projects, like Cern, the international particle physics facility in Geneva, and the European Space Agency, that it faces an 80m shortfall in cash over the next three years.

High-profile centres like Jodrell Bank and its radio astronomy Lovell telescope have question marks over their future. For the Astronomer Royal, Professor Martin Rees, the problem is symptomatic of a much bigger and more serious problem.

Professor Rees, who is also president of the UK's national science academy, the Royal Society, told me that the health of the physical sciences in Britain is not good.

He says it's time for a major re-think in the way the physical sciences are funded.

"Issues that have hit the headlines like serious cuts in physics departments and the cutting of high-profile projects like Jodrell Bank, those are the consequence of poor planning within the research council, not at government level. However, overall the funding of the physical sciences is at a precarious state in this country compared to the biomedical sciences.

"We are up against competition not just from the US but also from universities in the Far East. Unless we can compete we will fall behind, and unless in the UK we retain our competitiveness in these areas it's bad for the economy in general."

Cern's Atlas detector will search for the elusive "God particle"

The government has made much of wanting the UK to be a magnet for mobile talent. The cuts defy that goal.

Professor Swapan Chattopadhyay is director of the Cockcroft Institute at the Daresbury Laboratory near Manchester, where particle physics facilities and jobs are at risk. He was attracted to the UK as part of a reverse brain drain. Now he's thinking of going back.

"I would like government and the research council to take a serious look at how they are generating their future vision for science, and whether the community of scientists at large are participating in it or whether what's coming out is a quick response to a local fiscal problem."

So how does the chief executive of the STFC, Keith Mason, defend what's happening? Many of the scientists whose work is at risk hold him responsible. Some suspect the 80m shortfall is even there more by design than mismanagement, and that he is carrying out an agenda from government to move money away from pure science and emphasize the practical, the money-making. He says that's wrong.

"The mantra is not that we want to do less cutting edge pure science, we want to do more.

"But we need to farm the knowledge that we get more effectively so that we can afford to do more of it because, ultimately, the amount of astronomy and particle physics and pure science we can do depends ultimately on how well our economy is doing - and we should be contributing to that, too."

That may well confirm the worst fears of the astronomers and particle physicists under threat.

If you cared about money you wouldn't be a scientist at all would you
John Womersley

"It's quite clear to us," he went on, "that we do need to get better economic impact from the stuff that we invest in. It's taxpayers' money, and taxpayers have a right to a return from it. You won't have innovation without the science - but equally people have to face the fact that you won't get pure science unless you also get the value out of it and get the innovation, too."

I'm told by the Astronomer Royal that he thinks Jodrell Bank's Lovell telescope itself was never under serious threat. What was at risk was something called eMerlin, an array of radio telescopes, including the Lovell dish, for sensitive radio mapping of the skies. Now, after all the attention, it seems even eMerlin will be "re-prioritised".

There are even signs that the secretary of state at the Department for Innovation Universities and Skills, John Denham, has woken up to the seriousness of the situation over which he is presiding. Last night, Downing Street responded to the 17,000-plus e-petition over the cuts.

Delegates at the annual National Astronomy Meeting, Belfast (Image: BBC)
A number of scientists said astronomy was not being rewarded properly

The amount of money to be saved is small, and dwarfed by the impact it's having. Senior scientists say the situation is serious enough that the government should step in, and find some extra cash to tide the STFC over. Working out the "nitty gritty" of the finances of the STFC, to really understand what's gone wrong, will take a bit of work. At the Belfast meeting, Keith Mason offered the books up for astronomers to examine. They will surely take him up on this offer.

So what of Nicholas Owen, the student who's wondering if he should carry on?

The answer he got, from John Womersley, director of science programmes at the STFC, was criticised as patronising: "If you cared about money you wouldn't be a scientist at all would you," he told the students in the hall.

"You may feel it's a bigger gamble than you want to make, knowing what you do about future funding.

"But if it's not rewarding, and it's not exciting and you don't feel you can make a contribution, then don't do it. If you can, then let's figure out a way that you can. The future budgets make it tough, I can't deny that."

He's a particle physicist not an astronomer. Certainly what he said was insensitive. He badly mis-read just how angry and dismayed that room full of astronomers felt. And it was a desperately sad note to end on.

Watch the report on Tuesday at 10.30pm on Newsnight or anytime on the Newsnight website.

Astronomers 'must make own case'
04 Apr 08 |  Science/Nature
'Alice' loss would 'waste 25m'
03 Apr 08 |  Science/Nature
Jodrell Bank fears funding loss
06 Mar 08 |  Manchester
Deadline looms for science cuts
04 Mar 08 |  Science/Nature
UK astronomers on 'rollercoaster'
27 Feb 08 |  Science/Nature
Space weather science rues cuts
29 Jan 08 |  Science/Nature
UK physics has 'brighter future'
22 Jan 08 |  Science/Nature

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