£2.8m shortfall shuts down telescope research

Research council accused of ‘wasting £4.3 million and six years of people’s careers’, writes Zoë Corbyn

April 3, 2009

A multimillion-pound project to develop a new type of telescope, deemed to be “first-rate science”, has been cancelled before its completion by the Science and Technology Facilities Council.

The Clover project is jointly run by the universities of Cardiff, Oxford, Cambridge and Manchester, where dozens of scientists have spent the past four years developing a telescope to measure cosmic microwave background radiation – the echoes of the Big Bang.

But the project was cancelled by the STFC following a meeting of its council last month, after it was decided that a £2.76 million extension to the project, necessary to complete the telescope, could not be afforded.

“While council was assured that the science to be addressed by Clover remained first rate, the additional funding needed could not be made available in the current financial situation. Council therefore decided that STFC’s commitment to Clover should be cancelled,” an STFC spokeswoman said.

The project had originally been allocated £4.78 million and began in October 2004 with the aim of having the complete telescope operating by 2009. The revised figure to finish the project was £7.54 million.

The STFC said the £4.3 million in funding spent thus far could not be recovered, although it would “look for opportunities” to use the equipment. It said it was now waiting for a proposal from the Clover team on how it was going to wrap up the project and exploit any benefit from the work or equipment.

The telescope survived a cull last year by the council in its efforts to plug its £80 million “black hole”. It was given a rating of four out of a possible five by the STFC science committee that looked at the council’s portfolio last July, which said it was of “high importance” within the STFC’s programme.

One researcher working on the project told Times Higher Education of his disappointment and frustration over the decision. “The instrument itself is very nearly complete. There are several experiments all with the same goal, and they all have the same problem: it’s hard to do and sometimes you come across problems that take time and money to fix,” he said.

“Unless we can find another partner – which in this climate is unlikely – what STFC has done is waste £4.3 million, the expertise of dozens of people and up to six years of people’s careers. The weird thing is that Clover ticks a lot of its boxes: breaking new ground, international recognition and so on. STFC’s own science panel reviewed it and highly recommended it.”

Worries are also being raised as to whether other projects that seek extra funding could face a similar fate. However, an STFC spokeswoman said: “Clover is the only project that has recently been through a cancellation review and the only one considered at council. Most projects have some flexibility in them in terms of scope or timing that mean even if funding cannot be found at once, we can continue in some way.”

zoe.corbyn@tsleducation.com

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