Audit aims to plug black hole in STFC funding

Search is on for long-term cuts to particle physics and astronomy programmes. Zoë Corbyn reports

June 2, 2009

Particle physicists and astronomers must begin a fresh audit of their activities to help identify long-term cuts to research programmes and facilities.

Confirmation of the audit came from the Science and Technology Facilities Council last week as it mounted a renewed drive to convince policymakers that particle physics matters to the economy and society.

The STFC is asking its advisory panels to consult widely with researchers on research priorities for 2010-11 and beyond.

“We must assume at least equal pressure on our assumed [funding] allocation and… aim to develop an understanding of how to address this… [by] October 2009,” the council says in a statement.

The announcement amounts to an admission that future funding settlements for the STFC are unlikely to improve after the dramatic cuts already announced when an £80 million budgetary shortfall was identified at the council in 2007. It recently outlined that there will be additional cuts to its research programme for 2009-10 after its funding allocation for the period was £12 million less than expected.

An STFC spokeswoman said it was prudent for the council to look at what its future priorities should be because public finances are expected to deteriorate across the board. “It is ensuring we don’t just postpone making decisions,” she said.

The announcement came as a new STFC document, published in conjunction with the Institute of Physics, set out the benefits of particle physics.

“There are criticisms that particle physics is just navel-gazing… a search for another particle. It could not be further from the truth,” said Brian Cox, professor of particle physics at the University of Manchester. Professor Cox, a scientist with a growing media profile, presented the document, titled Particle physics – it matters. It sets out how the field is producing major advances in healthcare and communications technology, as well as delivering highly transferable expertise and inspiring the scientific leaders of tomorrow.

The document states that Cern, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, the flagship project of which is the £6 billion Large Hadron Collider, produces a return to the UK economy of £3 for every £1 invested.

“I don’t think we have ever had any trouble getting the message across to the public in the sense that [particle physics] has always been seen as a good thing,” said John Womersley, the STFC’s director of science programmes. “I am much more concerned about audiences closer to government decision-making [getting the message].”

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