Leader: All eyes on Supa group

May 6, 2005

Physics is a science where size matters: there are few good small departments. And despite being overtaken by other subjects in the popularity stakes, physics is important academically as well as being vital to innovation. So Scotland's physicists are right to take radical action to preserve the subject on a significant scale in their country.

Their task has been made simpler by the small size of the Scottish university system and by geography. Most Scottish universities are in the compact central belt and can exchange students and staff easily. In addition, the swath of university department closures in England probably influenced the Scots' decision to collaborate, both in physics and in maths and engineering, where similar moves are taking place.

Even vice-chancellors no longer believe that every university needs to house every subject. But they appreciate departments that are attracting students, research money and top staff. These are the measures by which Scottish research collaboration in physics will be judged. Its success cannot be guaranteed, but the numbers of people and the amounts of cash that are involved suggest that a good start is being made. The most important step will be to get management methods in place to run the new collaboration as a single entity rather than a joint venture.

The international scale of modern physics means that physicists are already more used to collaboration than other researchers. If they can work together successfully in Scotland, managers and politicians will be calling for more of the same in other subjects and across the UK.

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