'Focus funds for success'

February 20, 1998

British funding for astronomy and particle physics may be spread too thinly and be producing too few results, according to the incoming chief executive of the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council.

Ian Halliday told last week's meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society that PPARC "may be getting a bit too bland" in its choices. He said: "I have seen the Medical Research Council's submission to the comprehensive spending review, in which they say that they have supported 11 active Nobel prize-winners in the past five years. PPARC has not got any." However, many Nobels have been won in the past decade by overseas physicists working in areas of research funded by PPARC.

Professor Halliday, who is at the University of Wales in Swansea, said: "We have to think whether we are focusing and boosting original ideas or whether peer envy is replacing peer review. It could be that the peer review process is cutting the heads off the tall poppies." Although established groups continue to be funded, he said, there is no payoff for original research. The high-profile leaders of big research groups, who often win Nobels, are outside Britain.

He said: "The comparison with the record of the MRC is very stark, because it is claiming that it has been supporting the most productive research. So is the contrast with the United States. There everyone feared that particle physics would lose out to biomedicine when the SSC (Superconducting Supercollider, a major particle physics machine) was cancelled. In fact they have kept the money and the National Science Foundation is getting a 10 per cent budget rise."

Professor Halliday said that British science does not lobby for science funding as effectively as its US rivals. "They are getting that money because people in different subjects, such as chemistry, physics and engineering, have been coherent and supportive about the need for it," he said. "The most vital part of my job is to apply upwards pressure for more finance. I am certain to get pushed back if pressure is not put on me to get more funds."

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