The way in which the physical sciences are organised and publicly funded in the UK is to be revamped.
The council will focus on large projects such as Cern
The government will create a Large Facilities Council to focus efforts on major projects such as big telescopes and particle physics experiments.
This will merge two existing bodies: the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council and the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils.
The government wants the new council to take over by 1 April 2007.
It will take responsibility for particle physics, astronomy, space science, nuclear physics, synchrotron radiation, neutron sources and high-power lasers, and will manage the Rutherford Appleton and Daresbury laboratories. Its budget in 2007-08 will be about £530m.
Many of the big questions now in physics and astronomy can only be answered with grand projects involving large facilities and undertaken by international partners. So refocusing the UK's efforts in this area should allow the country's science community to speak with "one voice" in these ventures.
Examples of big facility projects with UK involvement include the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at Cern on the French-Swiss border, the European Southern Observatory telescopes in Chile, and the Diamond Synchrotron in Oxfordshire.
The Department of Trade and Industry, which made the announcement, said the new council would aim to:
- create a more integrated approach to large facilities, including international negotiations, for long-term projects involving several countries acting together
- obtain more value from the knowledge and technologies that are developed as a result of the new council's programmes
- deliver these goals using the Harwell and Daresbury laboratories as "knowledge transfer centres"
Science and Innovation Minister Lord Sainsbury said the new council would bring responsibility for large-scale physical science projects under a single umbrella and would "enable the UK to exploit fully the main synergies between the existing two councils".
The government had proposed two different possibilities for revamping the system of funding: a full merger of the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils (CCLRC) and the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PParc) - which it eventually opted for - and one that would have split PParc in two.
This would have passed its responsibility for funding science research to the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (Epsrc) and moved its role in funding large international projects to the CCLRC.
The Standing Conference of Astronomy Professors (Scap) took a vote on the issue with its members. The result came out in favour of the full merger by two to one.
"Scap went two to one in favour of [the full merger], so we mustn't grumble," said Professor Gordon Bromage, chair of Scap and a professor of astrophysics at the University of Central Lancashire.
"But from those numbers, it's clear there was a sizeable minority who were quite worried about what has come to pass.
The UK is involved on projects such as the Extremely Large Telescope
He told BBC News: "The large facilities side of things will build new telescopes and get initial exciting results, but then there's an awful lot of data which has to be analysed in more detail and that tends to be done on longer-term research grants.
"The Large Facilities Council doesn't even have research in its title, and that does worry Scap somewhat."
The scientists' union Prospect echoed this view, warning that the new council must not be at the expense of existing research or the nation's core scientific capability.
"Our members also have wider concerns that the new council will presage further cuts in funding for physical sciences and the early haemorrhage of key staff from the research councils concerned. Research indicates that once a facility closes, very few of the staff find similar alternative employment," said Prospect's director of research Sue Ferns.
The announcement was welcomed by Professor John Wood, chief executive of the CCLRC, and Professor Keith Mason, chief executive of PParc.
In a joint statement, they said the new council would place the UK in "a much stronger position to help shape and exert greater leadership and leverage in the development of strategies" for these big projects.
This, they added, would enable the UK research community to have access to the best facilities in the world.