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Last Updated: Tuesday, 22 January 2008, 19:04 GMT
UK physics has 'brighter future'
By Jonathan Amos
Science reporter, BBC News

Gemini North Observatory at sunset.  The United Kingdom Infrared Telescope is centered. (Gemini Observatory)
UK astronomers hope to maintain at least some access to Gemini North

The "doom and gloom" being spread about the state of UK physics and the funding of research is unhelpful and paints an inaccurate picture, says Keith Mason.

The chief executive of the Science and Technology Facilities Council claims the likely fallout from its spending settlement has been exaggerated.

The Council, which looks after some of the largest science centres in Britain, is faced with programme cuts of 80m.

But Professor Mason says physics research is more than holding its own.

"We have had to constrain some investments (particularly in the particle physics and astronomy programme), we've had to restructure our in-house research effort and we've had to withdraw from some lower-priority activities - but our programme remains extremely competitive," he told reporters at a briefing in London.

2007/08: 573,464,000
2008/09: 623,641,000
2009/10: 630,337,000
2010/11: 651,635,000

"We're in the positive and fortunate position of providing access for our scientists to some of the most prestigious and world-leading facilities.

He cited the new Diamond Light Source, a British facility that probes the structure of matter with X-rays. He talked of an expanded programme for the UK within the European Space Agency; and of the UK's leading role in laser research that could eventually lead to cheap energy.

"There are many good news stories out there and this particular issue is just one of the rocks on the road to a brighter future."

Professor Mason's comments were made following a hearing by the House of Commons Innovation, Universities and Skills Committee. The committee is holding a short inquiry into the Science Budget allocations.

'Science clubs'

The money given to science in the government's recent spending settlement was considered generous.

Diamond is housed in a vast, doughnut-shaped building

The Research Councils as a whole saw their awards rise by 17.4%; and the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) individually experienced a 13.6% increase. But a number of factors have conspired to erode the STFC's gain.

The most significant, says the STFC, is the move towards the funding of university research grants at their "full economic cost".

That is, whereas in the past universities effectively subsidised some research (by providing lab space, lighting, heating, technical support, etc), increasingly grants now take all of these old hidden costs into account.

Also, new science centres are coming online that are more expensive to run than their predecessors - such as Diamond; and Isis-2, another type of facility that will be capable of studying the properties of materials at the atomic level.

BepiColombo (Esa)
Some science can only be done in partnership with other nations
And the UK's subscriptions to the big international "science clubs" - like the European Organization for Nuclear Research (Cern) - have become more expensive, too, as they have been upgraded.

These and other administrative adjustments, some related to the closure of old facilities, have effectively turned a 13% increase into a "flat cash" settlement; says Professor Mason; and when general inflation is taken into account, the STFC finds itself in the unavoidable position of having to make 80m of cuts over the course of the next three years.

And at another level, it is worse than this because the STFC wants to find a further 40m in savings to give itself "headroom" to reprioritise its spending on science projects it considers to be of highest priority.

Put cuts 'on hold'

Big casualties include the cancellation of the UK's subscription to the Gemini Observatory which runs two eight-metre telescopes (one in the Northern Hemisphere; the other in the south) that Britain helped build.

Another is the R&D work on the International Linear Collider, a giant machine that is intended to take our knowledge of particle physics to a higher level.

Real harm is being done by the news of these cuts
Prof Michael Rowan-Robinson, RAS
But perhaps the one efficiency causing most grief currently is the decision to cut the grants for post-doctoral research assistants. Come the end of the new spending period in 2011 there will be 10% fewer than there were in 2005, the STFC says.

The Institute of Physics (IoP) and the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) have led the criticism of the STFC Delivery Plan. They say it will result in the loss of millions of pounds in research income for many university physics departments which will threaten their financial viability.

They say the programme could lead to hundreds of redundancies at the STFC innovation centres at the Daresbury Laboratory, the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, and the Astronomy Technology Centre.

The IoP and the RAS want in effect a moratorium imposed on the Delivery Plan. "UK physics, astrophysics, astronomy and particle physics have a very high international reputation," said Professor Michael Rowan-Robinson, president of the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS).

"They are a key reason why the UK scores so highly in science rating - if you look at citations and publications - and real harm is being done by the news of these cuts."

The IoP and the RAS want the Research Councils' umbrella group, RCUK, to step in with at least 20m, to put on hold any cuts until after the completion of a review of physics ordered this week by ministers (the review by Professor Bill Wakeham of Southampton University will report in the autumn).

"I think we need to have something in place to prevent irreversible decisions being made in the period - decisions that later on we won't be able to unravel," Professor Peter Main, the IoP's director of education and science, told the HoC committee.

"We're talking about 20m - it's not a terrific amount of money, in order not to allow things to go beyond the point of no return."

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