British particle physicists this week were faced with the prospect of a big slowdown in their programme for building the giant detectors to be used by the Large Hadron Collider particle smashing project at Cern in Geneva.
A council meeting at the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council discussed putting the brake on the project as a means of managing the council's lack of funds in the aftermath of the science budget allocations by the Office of Science and Technology two weeks ago.
According to council officials, there is "very little option" to putting a brake on the eight-year programme.
But particle physicists believe that even a slowdown will severely damage the initiative. David Saxon, Kelvin professor of physics at Glasgow University and chairman of the council's particle physics committee said before the meeting: "I hope very much that council will be able to avoid what I regard as inflicting the maximum damage with minimal savings."
He said slowing down the programme was "the sort of thing one might suggest if one did not appreciate what had already been achieved".
Even if staff costs are excluded, the detectors will cost Cern more than Pounds 300 million of which Britain's contribution will be Pounds 25-30 million. They will be used by the collider to study the fleeting existence of exotic matter in the aftermath of collisions between subatomic particles. Universities involved in the complex task of developing the detectors include Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial College, Bristol, Manchester, Durham and Edinburgh as well as engineers at Daresbury and Rutherford Appleton Laboratories who will be responsible for making them.
Professor Saxon criticised the Office of Science and Technology for having so far provided little in the way of forward planning guidelines for 1996/97. "We do not know whether this is to be a one year or a long-term problem," he said.
Other projects at risk include: the Integral space observatory, the planned gravity wave telescope and a new Cambridge radio telescope.