Big physics facilities in the UK have benefited from a larger science budget
UK physics is in good shape but faces a number of challenges ahead, concludes a major report commissioned by ministers.
Professor Bill Wakeham was asked to assess the status, funding, university provision, school education, careers and skill-supply of physics in Britain.
His panel noted many positives, such as the slight increase in undergraduate numbers recently, and the high regard in which UK research is held abroad.
But the Southampton vice-chancellor says those strengths must be cemented.
This means identifying, and addressing, some of the structural and skills weaknesses that exist across the organisation of physics education and research.
"UK physics is strong but faces important challenges," Professor Wakeham said in a statement.
"Physics in the UK has seen significant changes over the last 20 years, and the community must be confident that the current configuration serves the best interests of the UK.
"UK physics enjoys excellent international standing, and the role of physics and physicists is vital for other disciplines.
"A significant proportion of physics research takes place in non-physics departments.
"This provides evidence of both the pervasiveness of the discipline and the flexibility of physicists, but physics departments need to make sure that they maintain intellectual ownership of some parts of their discipline.
"The value of physics to the UK is such that relative weaknesses in its structures and in the skills pipeline must be addressed.
"We have identified these areas, so it is now a case of strengthening them so that UK physics can continue to grow in stature."
The Wakeham Review was announced in the midst of a funding row at the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), the main agency that channels taxpayers' money into physics and astronomy research in the UK.
The STFC was forced to reassess priorities when it found its government settlement over the next three years was £80m short of what it needed to meet planned commitments.
The review recognises the considerable increase in science funding over recent years - rising from £1.776bn in 2001/02 to £3.235bn in 2006/07, an increase of 82% (in this same period, the GDP of the UK increased by 38%).
However, it notes that physics' share of this extra money was not as great as some areas because the government had made a strategic choice to push research funds towards health, the environment and energy.
Nonetheless, because physics underpins so much of science, even these favoured areas need good physicists, and the Wakeham panel said "the discipline is perhaps not taking advantage of new income streams that could be available to it".
Lord Rees, president of the Royal Society, welcomed the Wakeham Review.
"The physical sciences are central to so many aspects of life from medicine to tackling climate change," he said.
"Our universities are among the best in the world and we need to make sure that position is maintained with the necessary funding being in place and that our schools are providing the students who will be the science leaders of tomorrow.
"Recent government funding for science has been positive, and this review serves as a good reminder that to deliver on the potential of science the government must maintain that support."