Four senior scientists - Tony McDonnell, John Zarnecki, Simon Green and Neil McBride - will join Colin Pillinger's planetary sciences research institute at The Open University on July 1. They will take with them 11 support staff and research students, millions of pounds of research grants and membership of international space missions.
Professor McDonnell said: "Pressure on funds has led to a very heavy teaching load being put on researchers. I have some excellent young researchers who couldn't do justice to the research opportunities because their teaching load was very high."
The University of Kent denied that the move cast doubt on the future of physics at the institution.
"The unit for space sciences and astrophysics will remain at Kent. We will be re-appointing staff in space science, though not necessarily in the same area of solar system science. Student applications are healthy and we will maintain continuity in the quality of our teaching," said Robert Freedman, deputy vice-chancellor of the University of Kent.
There were 21 physics staff in the school of physical sciences before the departure of the space scientists. The minimum number for a viable physics department is thought to be about 20.
Physics at the University of Kent was rated 3a in the most recent research assessment exercise. The Open University's planetary sciences research institute was assessed with earth sciences, and gained a grade 5. For institutions to claim researchers as theirs for the 2001 research assessment exercise, they have to be in place by March 31 2001.
Professsor Pillinger said: "Everyone in the planetary sciences research institute at The Open University has an international reputation and we hope to get a high rating."
The Kent space scientists are working on the Cassini mission, which will search for clues to the origin of life on Earth by studying the atmosphere of one of Saturn's moons, Titan. The thick blanket of orange smog that cloaks Titan is thought to be similar to the early atmosphere of Earth.
"The benefits from the interaction of two world-leading groups who exactly intermesh will be far greater than the sum of the component parts. We expect an immediate benefit from the mutual access to each other's programmes," said Professor Pillinger.
4 NewsThe Times HigherJmay 26J2000 Clean sweep: students from two Aberdeen University groups, the Aberdeen Conservation Volunteers and Shared Planet, clean up a beach at the mouth of the River Don. Anne-Mette Sylvest (pictured), of Aberdeen Conservation Volunteers, said: 'We are trying to raise awareness of the environment in the Aberdeen area. We want to make people understand that it is action on an individual basis that matters.'