Physicists defend coffers from a raid by engineers

Learned societies fight their corners as BIS seeks advice on UK research needs, writes Paul Jump

July 22, 2010

Particle physicists have hit back at the Royal Academy of Engineering's claim that some of the funding that goes to pure sciences should be redirected to engineering to boost the UK's economic recovery.

The call comes in a statement from the academy to Adrian Smith, director general of science and research at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

Professor Smith asked a number of bodies to advise him on "the needs and contribution of UK research" ahead of the BIS submission to the Treasury last week on how it will allocate its budget in the next spending period.

The academy, whose president, Lord Browne of Madingley, is leading a review of university funding, acknowledges the importance of supporting all research.

But it says that the UK cannot afford to maintain current funding levels for those areas of basic science whose "fascinating problems" do not need "urgent" solutions.

"There is a strong case for increasing the share of the research budget that goes to engineering in the short and medium term to underpin new high-tech companies that will help boost and rebalance the economy," it says.

It singles out particle physics, which, it says, "makes only a modest contribution to the most important challenges facing society today, as compared with engineering and technology where almost all the research is directly or indirectly relevant to wealth creation".

In response, Paul Harrison, professor of particle physics at the University of Warwick, cited the World Wide Web, which was invented at the Cern laboratory, as an example of the huge economic impact particle physics could have, even in the short term.

"This was a spin-off from funded research in pure science, not predicted and not itself funded for development at all," he said.

He added that students were drawn to study science by their interest in "big science". "The STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects form a continuum with a huge exchange of ideas and people between each other. An attack on one is really an attack on all of them," he said.

Brian Foster, head of the department of particle physics at the University of Oxford, also pointed out that UK spending on astronomy and particle physics had fallen by more than 25 per cent in the past decade. "Further reductions will cause irreversible damage," he said.

The Royal Society's submission warns of "irreversibly catastrophic" effects on UK science and economic growth if the research budget is cut by 20 per cent.

It says PhD studentships would have to be slashed, "destroying an entire generation of home-grown scientists" and dissuading international students from coming to the UK, "meaning that the supply of low-cost research staff would collapse".

It adds that repairing the damage in future would be "prohibitively expensive", while "continued investments by other leading scientific nations would make it impossible to recover our scientific and economic leadership and to attract the best researchers back to the UK".

The British Academy's submission voices similar fears about the UK's international standing in the humanities and social sciences, and points out that deep cuts in these areas would save the government only a small amount of money.

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