Page last updated at 20:36 GMT, Wednesday, 16 December 2009

UK science faces funding cutbacks

By Victoria Gill
Science reporter, BBC News

Lord Drayson
Lord Drayson said he would work with the STFC to find a better solution

UK research could suffer, scientists say, in the wake of budget cuts announced by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC).

One of the UK's largest funding councils will cut 25% of its research studentships and fellowships.

Critics say this could harm the future of UK science, by reducing investment in the next generation of researchers.

The STFC has described the cuts to its funding programmes as "regrettable but necessary".

The council has been forced to make savings following the global financial crisis and the fall in the value of the pound.

This has increased the cost of its subscriptions to large international facilities including the Large Hadron Collider at Cern in Switzerland, the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) and the European Space Agency (Esa).

The Royal Astronomical Society pointed out that an increasingly squeezed funding budget meant that the council would withdraw from some existing research projects.

It said that, by 2012, facilities including the UK Infrared Telescope in Hawaii, and the Gemini observatory would have "lost all UK support".

"The result of this is the loss of all UK funding for ground-based optical observatories in the northern hemisphere," said the society, "which will leave British scientists without direct access to a large part of the sky."

But the STFC said that those withdrawls had been "on the cards for some time".


Julia Maddock, a spokesperson for the funding council, said: "When we signed up to the European Southern Observatory, we knew that we would have to pull back from some existing telescopes.

"This is a planned withdrawal that's been continued."

A better solution

Nuclear physicist Professor Patrick Regan said that if the planned cuts went ahead, Britain could be left incapable of training the technicians it needs to develop the planned new next generation of nuclear power plants.

If the funding cuts go ahead, he told BBC News, it could mean the "destruction of nuclear physics as a research subject in the UK".

The Science Minister, Lord Drayson, said that the cuts made it clear that there were "real tensions" in having international science projects, large scientific facilities and UK grant giving roles within a single research council.

Subscriptions to international facilities have become more expensive

"It leads to grants being squeezed by increases in costs of the large international projects which are not solely within their control," he said.

"I will work urgently with... the STFC and the wider research community to find a better solution by the end of February 2010."

Nick Dusic, director of the pressure group Campaign for Science and Engineering (Case), agreed that a review of the STFC's structure was in order.

"The tensions Lord Drayson has identified are leading to the erosion of the research and skills base across a number of priority areas," he said.

"Maintaining investment in the next generation of scientists and engineers is critical," he added, "so the cut in studentships is a very worrying development."

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