Particle physicists fear PhD funding 'disaster'

Field will suffer most from STFC's proposed changes to support for doctoral students, Zoë Corbyn hears

February 19, 2009

The research field popularised by Einstein - theoretical particle physics - is facing a "disastrous" cut in PhD funding, academics have warned.

The field, which covers everything from string theory to utilising the potential of the Large Hadron Collider, is seen as a powerful lure to attract students to physics.

"Particle theory is one of the things that captures people's imagination," said Nigel Glover, the director of Durham University's Institute for Particle Physics Phenomenology.

But academics fear it will suffer from changes proposed by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) in how it allocates support for doctoral students. Cuts of 30 per cent are predicted.

The STFC has previously relied on peer review to determine the number of PhD studentships it awards to university departments. But in a consultation sent to departmental heads last month, it proposed allocating funding based on an algorithm.

Under the algorithm, the number of STFC studentships awarded to a department would be allocated in proportion to the number of academic staff who are eligible to hold STFC research grants, multiplied by the "average quality per academic within the department". This measure of quality would be determined by the number of STFC-funded postdoctoral researchers each staff member has.

Professor Glover said that while some departments would lose and others would gain, theoretical particle physics everywhere would be harder hit than other physics disciplines because the field traditionally has fewer postdoctoral researchers. "It will be an absolute disaster," he said.

Professor Glover added that while there are now about 40 to 50 funded PhD places for the subject each year, the changes, if implemented, could see that tally drop as low as 10 or 12.

The proposed algorithm may also hit very small departments, with those having fewer than three eligible staff likely to receive no funding.

The consultation closes this month, when it will fall to the STFC to decide what to do.

"People (at the STFC) are aware, but whether or not they will act, I don't know," Professor Glover said.

An STFC spokeswoman said the council welcomed input from all affected departments, including alternative approaches.

Departmental heads are already struggling to deal with the effects of a 25 per cent cut to grants after the last budget settlement.

Meanwhile, Keith Mason, chief executive of the STFC, gave follow-up evidence to MPs on the House of Commons Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Select Committee.

He argued that the STFC was fit for purpose, despite a recent review that found failings in its organisational structure.

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