Physics puts up a fight

January 19, 1996

A "fight for physics" has been launched by the Institute of Physics to stop 1996/97 budget cuts hitting the discipline, writes Kam Patel.

Institute concern was heightened by an internal review of all programme areas by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Council's technical opportunities panel which advises on future research opportunities.

The TOPpanel produced a chart that prioritises 14 programme areas. Physics fares second worse, above marine technology, while control and instrumentation are top, followed by mathematics and information technology.

The institute fears that if the council acts on the panel's recommendations, physics research could lose 5 per cent of funding.

Chief executive Alun Jones said that the institute aimed to give "full support to the physics community in its effort to persuade the EPSRC that its method of assessing effectiveness and relevance of research programmes is not appropriate for physics as a core discipline".

He said much of physics had been absorbed in other EPSRC programme areas, such as IT and materials. "What is left is an exciting programme with great potential but which is not appropriate to be judged by the mechanisms used by TOP."

Between Pounds 45 million and Pounds 50 million out of more than Pounds 200 million in grants is directed by the EPSRC to physics research, which ranges from fundamental to applied work.

Richard Brook, EPSRC's chief executive, said that physicists also enjoyed a high success rate in winning responsive mode grants. "There are many achievements which the physicists should take pride and pleasure in. What we would like to see is a basic science programme for physics which all parties agree is the best."

He also said that while no firm decision had been made over the financial implications of the TOP report, "gradual and slight shifts" that could lead to increases as well as decreases in funding were not uncommon. "These things change from year to year and reductions are not meant to be seen as a downgrading of the area concerned."

Sandy Donnachie, dean of the faculty of science and engineering at Manchester University and chairman of the standing conference of professors of physics, said that the assessment criteria used by the panel were "biased towards technology and wealth creation. Clearly much of core physics does not address this and is not intended to, but it is work which underpins application of physics in other areas."

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