Cuts are likely despite high levels of excellence, writes Anna Fazackerley.
A mass cull of physics departments is on the cards unless the subject is given urgent financial assistance, leading figures in the field have warned.
Over the past ten years, 30 per cent of the physics departments in UK universities have closed. The Institute of Physics now fears that more will have to go unless there is more cash, with 4-rated departments, which will see their real- terms funding cut over the next three years, coming under increasing pressure from vice-chancellors trying to balance their books.
Julia King, IoP chief executive, said: "You can see why vice-chancellors look very hard at physics departments. They are looking to make ends meet, and physics is an expensive subject to teach."
Physics is a victim of its own research success. According to the results of the 2001 research assessment exercise, 78 per cent of physics research is carried out in internationally excellent departments, rated 5 or 5*.
Ms King said: "This shoots us in the foot, as there is a very high proportion of 5 and 5* departments, so the a fixed pot of funding per member of staff means that departments get less money through that route than a subject such as chemistry. We need a system where departments of equal quality get fair levels of funding."
Many academics are furious that universities are discarding such a fundamental subject for economic reasons.
John Inkson, head of physics at Exeter University, said: "It is vitally important for physics to exist in key universities and in all regions.
There is a tendency now for people to go to local universities, and smaller universities in areas such as East Anglia have lost physics completely. The student numbers have tended to become more concentrated in the larger institutions."
But Mike Edmunds, head of the physics and astronomy department at Cardiff University, said there had not been the outcry one might have expected over closures because many departments were still having difficulty filling undergraduate places.
He said: "My department is holding out, which is a relief. But in an ideal world, I'd like to see more students and more qualified students. Every year we have a core of really good students, but I worry that this core isn't getting any bigger. I'd like physics and astronomy to be the new classics degree in employment terms. For 21st-century life, a good physics degree should train the mind for a very wide application."
According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, physics undergraduate numbers in the UK dropped to 8,635 last year from 9,030 in 2000-01.
There is widespread agreement that, despite a string of initiatives, schoolchildren are not getting the message that a physics degree can offer good employment prospects. Martin Hendry, senior lecturer in astronomy and astrophysics at Glasgow University, said: "What is clear from university open days and school visits is that students are more concerned nowadays with whether they will get a job at the end than with the esoteric, aesthetic values of physics as an academic pursuit."
However, universities are reporting a revival in student interest, with some, including Manchester and Exeter, reporting a 50 per cent increase in applications.
Astronomy is a boom area. Many universities have combined physics and astronomy courses to attract more students, and the IoP is reporting a rise in the recruitment of astronomy lecturers.
But such concentration means problems for research funding. Professor Edmunds said: "The downside is that the strain on astronomy research funding has become chronic because of the number of academics bidding (to get) into that area."
Other research areas coming to the forefront include nanotechnology, quantum electronics, quantum computing and gravitational waves. Particle physics and astrophysics are now established as essentially international subjects, centring on facilities such as the Cern European particle physics laboratory in Geneva.
Fred Loebinger, a researcher in particle physics at Manchester University, said: "It's impossible not to get involved in international collaborations because of the scale and expense. None of the individual countries can afford to do it alone."
But some academics fear these large projects are overpowering physics research.
One senior academic, who asked not to be named, said: "The perception is that the budget has gone up but, one way or another, the money coming through to support researchers is less. I think it's going into big facilities. I worry that support for smaller-scale, experimental work is getting less."
Regardless of such concerns, however, morale in many university physics departments remains high, with some reporting that excitement in the field is at an unprecedented level.
Lyndsay Fletcher, a lecturer in solar physics at Glasgow University, said:
"I really enjoy working in physics and feel positive about the future. In small groups such as mine the mood is good. There are a lot of people with a real passion for their subject and I want to get students involved in that."
Women are still a tiny minority in the subject despite their advances
Haley Morgan, research student in the physics and astronomy department at Cardiff University
"Many girls come into physics at undergraduate level, but they don't carry on. I'd like to say it's not sexism, but it probably is. Often female physicists giving talks get beaten down by the older men in the audience. "There's one female academic here [at Cardiff], and she's part time. That's scary when you're looking at a career in physics. At the moment I'm looking for jobs and thinking, 'Do I really want to work in a department that has no women?'"
Lyndsay Fletcher, lecturer in solar physics at Glasgow University
"As an undergraduate, I had a female professor. I remember thinking, 'If you can do it, so can I.' There's empathy between female students and female academics. They often talk to me about what I'm doing, so the role-model effect is strong. "Among female colleagues in my field who have taken a break to have children, there is an enduring fear that they are not performing as well as the men or the childless women. There is a perception that there is more flexibility in industry. One thing in academia is that you are only as good as your last paper."
Julia King, chief executive of the Institute of Physics
"This year the drop in girls taking physics A level is greater than for boys. Boys dropped by 2.6 per cent and girls by 4.2 per cent. At AS level, the drop for girls is 9 per cent. Next year that drop may be more. "There is so much going on to try to encourage girls, but we are not getting the message across."
Where can physics take you?
John Brown - chief executive of BP
Dolores Byrne - managing director for public services, QinetiQ
Pallab Ghosh - BBC science correspondent
Arthur C. Clarke - author of 2001: A Space Odyssey
Heather Reid - BBC weather forecaster, Scotland
Sir Brian Mawhinney - a former secretary of state for Northern Ireland
Javier Solana - former secretary-general of Nato