Atomic devastation?

Nuclear physicists claim to have been singled out by the STFC for cuts that could destroy the discipline. Zoë Corbyn reports

December 18, 2009

Nuclear physicists are not only claiming to be the biggest victims of the funding cuts announced by the Science and Technology Facilities Council this week, but have also accused the STFC of operating a “cartel” to slash their funding.

Key academics in the field say that they are bearing a “disproportionate” percentage of the STFC’s cuts, which have the potential to “kill off” the UK’s skills base in nuclear physics. They have also accused the council of intentionally targeting their subject area.

“Nuclear physics… has clearly been ‘sidelined’ by a cartel for cuts that are way out of proportion,” said Paddy Regan, a physics professor at the University of Surrey.

He calculated that the cuts planned over the next five years in nuclear physics funding represented a 52 per cent reduction, “far more than the other STFC disciplines”.

“The nuclear physics community’s fears that scientific debate and prioritisation would give way to ‘bloc voting’ within the STFC… appear to be borne out,” he said. “The community has basically been ‘done in’ by the STFC, which seems intent on killing off nuclear physics as an academic pursuit in the UK.

“These acts of scientific vandalism must be challenged and overturned.”

On 16 December, the STFC announced a swath of cuts to deal with a £40 million black hole in its finances, which it hopes to return to a more sustainable footing.

In addition to the £12 million knocked off the nuclear physics budget over the next five years, there will be £42 million in cuts to space schemes, £39 million to astronomy projects and £32 million to particle physics initiatives.

Professor Regan said that compared with the 52 per cent cuts to nuclear physics, space projects were being cut by 10 per cent, particle physics by 5 per cent and astronomy by 11 per cent.

Responsibility for nuclear physics was transferred from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council to the STFC when the latter was formed in 2007.

John Womersley, director of science programmes at the STFC, denied nuclear physics had been in any way “singled out”.

“Nuclear physics projects were compared with all others in our science programme in a single, rigorous peer-review process based on independent advice from leading academics,” he said.

He added that total funding for UK nuclear physics would be reduced from roughly £8 million per year in 2007 to £6 million in 2013, a 25 per cent reduction rather than the 52 per cent claimed by Professor Regan.

“We acknowledge that this reduction will be challenging for the universities and we have committed to continue to support already issued grants to enable a managed transition,” he said.

He added that the STFC’s nuclear physics programme addresses “curiosity-led questions”.

“The EPSRC, which supports nuclear engineering in the UK, is increasing its spending in nuclear skills,” he said.

Under the programme of cuts, from next year STFC studentships and fellowships will be reduced by 25 per cent and grants by 10 per cent.

The reductions have led the whole sector to warn of their potentially grave ramifications.

“[We are] seriously concerned at the effect the loss of so many smaller projects will have on the health and morale of physics groups in British universities,” said Andy Fabian, president of the Royal Astronomical Society. “The potential damage to one of the UK’s leading activities could be huge.”

However, there was a warm welcome for the parallel announcement by Science Minister Lord Drayson that he will “work urgently” to review the STFC’s remit in light of the fact that much of the cuts are a result of the increased costs of international facilities subscriptions caused by changes in the exchange rate. Such factors are beyond the council’s control.

“It has become clear to me that there are real tensions in having international science projects, large scientific facilities and UK grant-giving roles within a single research council,” Lord Drayson said. “I will work urgently… to find a better solution by the end of February 2010.”

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