Physicists fear mergers on horizon

Next month's Wakeham review may call for greater focus on applied research. Zoe Corbyn reports

August 14, 2008

Physicists have expressed concern that a government-driven review may result in proposals to merge university physics departments with those in more applied fields, such as engineering.

Bill Wakeham, vice-chancellor of the University of Southampton, is preparing to deliver his review to the UK research councils next month.

It was commissioned in the wake of the £80 million shortfall in the budget settlement of the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC).

Professor Wakeham told Times Higher Education in May that if it were found that dedicated physics departments were very narrowly focused, they might need to adopt "a broader spectrum of activity".

The comments have not been well received in the community.

James Stirling, pro vice-chancellor for research at Durham University, said: "The worry for me is that Wakeham will suggest that there are departments that are too reliant on STFC funding and it is unhealthy to put your eggs in one basket. The real danger is in micromanagement. Physics departments being told how they should structure their departments - that departments should scale down their activities in some area and go for a broader emphasis of activities, perhaps even putting more emphasis on applied research."

"Decisions about how research is organised at grasssroots level should be left to the universities," he said.

Ken Peach, a University of Oxford researcher, said: "Physics should be retained as a separate and distinct discipline, and universities should be properly funded to enable that."

Andy Fabian, president of the Royal Astronomical Society, said: "I am hoping that they understand the value of basic science. When you see a big squeeze on basic research (such as the STFC cuts), you wonder whether it is a mistake or people from above are driving it in that direction. I think there are some people arguing for us doing more applied science."

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