Physicists build up critical mass

May 6, 2005

A new alliance of top Scots researchers aims to rival world-renowned physics centres, says Olga Wojtas

Scottish physicists have banded together to form what they claim to be the largest research group in the UK in an ambitious bid to become one of the subject's major players on the world stage.

The alliance will bring together several hundred researchers - a research giant by any measure - that will challenge in size and standing the physics groups in Oxbridge and London, and even the leading university centres in the US.

The Scottish Universities Physics Alliance (Supa) brings together more than 200 academics from Edinburgh, Glasgow, Heriot-Watt, Paisley, St Andrews and Strathclyde universities. And the total number of researchers, including postdoctoral and PhD students, in the group is approaching 700.

The universities argue that the alliance represents a genuine new grouping, with equipment and research students shared and new researchers jointly appointed.

They say it signals - at a time of departmental closures in physics and chemistry - that in the increasingly expensive physical sciences, at least, size is necessary for academic survival.

Alan Miller, vice-principal for research at St Andrews University, said:

"This sends an extremely strong message when physics and chemistry departments are closing south of the border."

Julian Jones, head of the School of Engineering and Physical Sciences at Heriot-Watt University, where the alliance was officially launched, said:

"Scotland can boast top-class physicists but no individual university physics department has the size to compete with the biggest in the UK and abroad.

He added: "This new research alliance will provide a formal infrastructure for research collaboration, competitive on the international stage while allowing each department to build on its research excellence. It's the best of both worlds."

Professor Miller said he did not believe that a specific number of staff was necessary for world-class research, but Supa created added value by boosting relations between different groups.

The alliance is built around key research strengths in the fields of astronomy and space physics; condensed matter and material physics; nuclear and plasma physics; particle physics; and photonics.

Each theme will involve at least two universities working together, and any institution appointing new staff will have a representative of its partner universities on the interview panel.

The universities form a close geographical triangle, and the researchers will hold regular meetings and workshops as well as conducting experiments in one another's laboratories. Institutions would also be able to acquire expensive equipment jointly rather than competing against one another for it, Professor Miller said.

He has been fielding inquiries from groupings of English physicists, and he predicted that new alliances might not be confined to particular regions.

"This is certainly a trend (collaboration) to create a larger impact."

One of the alliance's key innovations is a Scottish Graduate School, with universities pooling their expertise to offer new advanced courses, boosting young researchers' skills. Each institution has a video classroom, but the graduate school will not confine itself to virtual education.

Professor Miller said that the universities were so close to one another geographically that "we can stick all the students in a bus and drive them to another place".

Supa has already awarded 11 prize studentships chosen from 130 applicants from 34 countries. Five go to overseas postgraduates, five to the European Union and one to the UK.

Roger McClure, chief executive of the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council, said: "This allows young, up-and-coming researchers to take part in the pool without having to confront potentially life-changing decisions to move into a different department."

Supa embraces Scotland's six highest rated physics departments, but Mr McClure stressed that it would not be exclusive.

"The model is not of centres of excellence but of 'selective inclusion'," he said. "Anyone who has a contribution to make and shows that they can operate at a world competing level of quality should have the opportunity to take part."

Supa has been awarded more than £14 million for its first five years of operation, with £7 million coming from Shefc, almost £1.5 million from the Office of Science and Technology and the rest from the partner institutions themselves.

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