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Last Updated: Tuesday, 11 December 2007, 09:33 GMT
Ministers review physics funding
By Pallab Ghosh
Science correspondent, BBC News

Plasma ball (Image: BBC)
Scientists fear the funding gap will hit the UK's international reputation
The government is to review its funding for physics after scientists warned of an 80m research shortfall.

Leading physicists criticised the threatened cutbacks which they said could "damage" physics research.

Science Minister Ian Pearson said funding arrangements would be reviewed, but did not promise extra money.

He said he was sympathetic to the problems that the physics community currently faces.

I have it from a very reliable source that we are looking at a 25% cut in grants over the next three years
Michael Rowan-Robinson,
Royal Astronomical Society

"Scientific research is not a luxury, it is a necessity," Dr Brian Cox, of Manchester University's School of Physics and Astronomy, said of the shortfall.

"The government has done an enormous amount over the past 10 years to restore the UK's reputation as a scientific leader.

"It is short-sighted and damaging to throw this away through an ill-considered attack on fundamental science."

Funding void

The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) describes itself as one of Europe's largest multi-disciplinary research organisations supporting scientists and engineers worldwide.

It was formed in April 2007 following the merger of the Council for the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils (CCLRC) and the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PParc).

The STFC claims it was aware of higher than planned running costs of new prestige research facilities, such as the Diamond Synchrotron, near Oxford.

Diamond is housed in a vast, doughnut-shaped building

The council asked for additional funding to cover these costs but it is understood that officials within the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS) were reluctant to make more funding available.

The STFC was told no extra money would be forthcoming and that they would have to find savings within the agreed budget.

It initially suggested that the least worst option was to close the synchrotron radiation source in Daresbury, near Manchester, earlier than planned.

But this option was vetoed by ministers after representations from Labour MPs in north-west England.

As a result, there are likely to be cuts the across the council's entire research programme, including particle physics, astronomy and laser physics.

Jobs 'at risk'

It is also feared that several hundred highly qualified scientists could lose their jobs.

One researcher told BBC News he feared the UK could end up with some of the finest facilities in the world, but without enough scientists and funding to fully exploit them.

Professor Michael Rowan-Robinson, president of the Royal Astronomical Society, said astronomy faced its worst financial settlement for decades, with many research programmes facing the axe.

"I have it from a very reliable source that we are looking at a 25% cut in grants over the next three years," he said.

"Programme cuts could even result in some existing research grants being cancelled. Both of these are truly awful for universities."

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