Search for a positive signal

February 4, 2010

The UK needs to produce more physicists, according to Sir Brian Follett, chair of the STEM Advisory Forum. Yet this is being undermined by severe funding cuts to fundamental physics and astronomy that predate the economic downturn.

There is a common perception that the growth in UK astronomy was spiralling out of control in the run-up to the 2007 Comprehensive Spending Review, due to its appeal to prospective physics undergraduates and its promise of high research impact without expensive laboratory requirements. This may have been the origin of the poor CSR 2007 settlement for the Science and Technology Facilities Council, which supports the field.

However, a recent Institute of Physics report demonstrates that the UK astronomy community grew exactly in proportion with physics departments as a whole in the five years to 2008. More widely, the growth in astronomy between 2003-04 and 2007-08 mirrored the 14 per cent expansion of the higher education sector reported by Research Councils UK ("Too many cooks, not enough cash", 14 January).

Regardless of the murky origins of the STFC's widely publicised shortfall, the impact on physics departments heavily reliant on the council for research funding may be severe, exacerbated by the funding cuts to teaching announced in late 2009. The UK is a world leader in astronomy and space science, yet the proposed factor-of-two cuts to postdoctoral grants will severely erode our lead over competitor nations.

The fundamental physics community is looking to Lord Drayson's STFC review to staunch these losses by implementing structural changes that take account of the physics and astronomy communities' recommendations. A positive signal is desperately needed to return financial stability to university physics departments and restore confidence in the discipline.

Paul Crowther, University of Sheffield.

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