Page last updated at 12:51 GMT, Thursday, 4 March 2010

Promise made on UK physics woes

By Jonathan Amos
Science correspondent, BBC News

The Diamond project
Diamond is one of the most expensive physics facilities ever built in the UK

The UK government is promising to put in place measures to protect the future funding of physics and astronomy.

The body responsible for overseeing the disciplines has had to withdraw from some projects and cut research grants because of pressures on its budget.

One key problem is the low value of the pound, which has made UK involvement in international science very expensive.

Ministers say they will continue to provide compensation payments while implementing a longer-term solution.

The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) is one of a number of research councils charged with routing public funds into British scientific activity.

The STFC looks after UK interests in major astronomy and physics experiments, such as the Large Hadron Collider at Cern in Switzerland, and the Very Large Telescope in Chile.

It is critical that whoever forms the next government prioritizes investment in science
Nick Dusic, Case

It also leads British participation in space science at the European Space Agency (Esa).

More than half of the council's budget is tied up in the "subscriptions" it pays to participate in these science "clubs"; and it also has a large fixed-cost element at home from managing big physics centres such as the Diamond X-ray light source in Oxfordshire.

Factors such as a weakening in sterling have conspired with the organisation's particular structural arrangements to put a squeeze on on those areas of its activities that are more flexible - the actual science and scientists it funds in the big facilities and clubs.

In December, the STFC executive announced that the UK would be withdrawing from major projects, such as the operation of the Cassini spacecraft in orbit around Saturn, and from the Gemini eight-metre telescopes (in Hawaii and Chile) the UK helped to build.

It also indicated there would have to be a cut-back in grants. Currently, it is envisaged there will be a 13% reduction next year in the money available to support PhD students in physics, space and astronomy.

Treasury discussions

The government announced on Thursday that it was putting in place new arrangements for the STFC "designed to ensure that it can plan with greater predictability and provide its community with more stability".

These plans include what it describes as "better management of pressures arising from international subscriptions, and longer-term planning and budgeting for large domestic facilities".

Atlas (Cern/C. Marcelloni)
The UK pays a subscription to take part in the LHC venture

This includes getting the other research councils - like the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and the Medical Research Council - to agree to better organise their use and funding of facilities operated by STFC.

Science minister Lord Drayson said: "There is no doubt STFC faced a difficult situation. A lot of work has gone in to finding ways of preventing such pressures rearing their heads again in future.

"The better management of international subscriptions through measures to manage exchange rates, and longer-term planning and budgeting for large domestic facilities will allow STFC's grant-giving functions to be managed with a higher degree of predictability."

None of the planned efficiencies announced in December will be affected by the new arrangements. The managed withdrawal from ventures - such as the Alice Collaboration, which seeks to exploit data acquired by the LHC; and nuclear physics projects such as Agata and Panda - will proceed as outlined.

Discussions are currently under way between the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Treasury to find a sustainable strategy to protect UK science from currency fluctuations in the years ahead.

The STFC should shortly be relieved of a major part of this problem anyway when the new UK executive space agency is formally established. This agency will take over the funding and policy for space science previously dealt with by STFC.

'Staunch the flow of blood'

The immediate reaction from the physics and astronomy community to the announcement appeared positive but with reservation.

Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, president of the Institute of Physics, and Professor Andrew Fabian, president of the Royal Astronomical Society, issued a joint statement.

They said: "We have been particularly concerned about the way in which unforeseeable rises in international subscriptions due to the falling value of the pound have put extreme pressure on the funding available from STFC both for research grants and the running of UK-based facilities. Today's announcement demonstrates that the problem has now been recognised and we look forward to seeing how it will be addressed."

Artist's impression of BepiColombo (Esa)
Space activity in the UK will soon be coordinated by an executive agency

But they added: "Looking at the science base as a whole, we remain concerned about the overall impact on science funding as the pressure on the public purse becomes increasingly acute. We urge that the government continues to recognise the value of investment in the science base and funds accordingly."

Peter Coles, professor of astrophysics at Cardiff University, wrote on his blog: "The Drayson review may have staunched the flow of blood, but the patient will remain dangerously ill unless additional measures are taken."

And Dr Dave Clements, an astronomer from Imperial College, wrote on Twitter: "Our competitors are still boosting science funding at a time when the UK is cutting it - no fix for that here."

Nick Dusic, from the Campaign for Science and Engineering (Case), told BBC News: "Today's announcement shows that the government has identified potential solutions to the STFC's structural problems, which should give a glimmer of hope to those that depend on STFC for funding or look to its research for inspiration.

"However, we will not know the full implications of the proposals until the outcome of the next spending review. It is critical that whoever forms the next government prioritises investment in science."

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