Page last updated at 12:11 GMT, Monday, 3 November 2008

Future of physics 'under threat'

By Pallab Ghosh
Science correspondent, BBC News

Jodrell Bank
A network of radio telescopes had been threatened by the cuts

Leading scientists have said that physics research in the UK is suffering greatly because of a shortfall in funding.

They made their comments to BBC News at a meeting to respond to a government review published last month which concluded that physics was strong and had an excellent reputation.

At the meeting, the scientists said that a 25% cut in research grants was damaging the long-term future of research.

They are concerned that university departments are having to cut back - with some having to halve in size.

And there are also worries that many young researchers are turning away from physics as a result of cutbacks.

Late last year, it emerged that there was an estimated 80m shortfall in funding for physics research following the merger of two funding bodies to create the Science and Technologies Facilities Council.

Professor Brian Foster is a particle physicist at Oxford University. He says his own department had to find savings of 1.5m to cover grants that would no longer materialise.

"What we're suffering from is down-sizing - essentially getting rid of people that are funded by STFC. In my own department, we are having to halve in size," he said.

Systems change

Professor Foster is also European director of the International Linear Collider, a giant machine that would follow on from the recently opened Large Hadron Collider at Cern.

The STFC withdrew from the ILC project earlier this year.

"The decision is a very retrograde one," Professor Foster said.

"We cannot afford not to be involved in the future of particle physics. Not to be involved in the future is clearly a death sentence in the not too distant future."

Professor Foster rejects claims that he is guilty of special pleading for his particular interests, a view supported by the president of the Institute of Physics, Professor Jocelyn Bell Burnell.

"Of course you can't fund everything, but as president of the Institute of Physics I'm taking an overview," she told BBC News.

Her concern is that spending allocations were made secretively, without proper consultation.

That resulted in a Comprehensive Spending Review in government that was not favourable to certain parts of science.

The institute is keen that in future the process is more transparent and that there is much better consultation with scientists working in the field.

"We see some changes in those directions but I've yet to be convinced that it's going to work well enough," said Professor Bell Burnell.

Professor Andy Fabian, president of the Royal Astronomical Society, said that grant cuts had led to young researchers leaving academia.

"We're all still reeling; it had its biggest impact on the young post-doctoral workers who've decided, many of them, to do something else and that kind of drop is going to take many years to recover from."

Future 'challenges'

In October, Professor Bill Wakeham, of Southampton University, carried out a review of the status, funding, university provision, school education, careers and skill-supply of physics in Britain.

Overall, his review findings were positive, but his report concluded that some "important challenges" had to be addressed.

The review recognised the considerable increase in science funding over recent years - rising from 1.776bn in 2001/02 to 3.235bn in 2006/07.

But it said 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.

A spokesman for the Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills said: "Public funding for science is now at its highest level ever and will increase from 3.4bn per year this year to almost 4bn by 2011.

"While detailed funding decisions are rightly a matter for individual research councils, over the past five years public funding for physics has increased from 460m to 616m."

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