A Government-commissioned review of the health of university physics has been brought forward, raising hopes that the impact of substantial cuts to research budgets may yet be mitigated.
The Science and Technology Facilities Council has already announced that it will withdraw from some international physics and astronomy projects and cut grant funding by 25 per cent to help address an £80 million hole in its finances.
Keith Mason, the STFC's chief executive, told MPs last month that the Government's forthcoming physics review would not influence the council's decisions over the cuts. The review, led by Bill Wakeham, vice-chancellor of the University of Southampton, was originally due to report in autumn this year.
But a statement from the STFC, e-mailed last week to more than 16,000 people who signed a petition opposing the cuts, says the Wakeham review will report "in summer", allowing the council to "take stock" in deciding where cuts will fall. The review's recommendations can "be accommodated within (the) timetable" for decision-making on budget cuts, says the STFC.
The news was treated with caution by scientists who have been campaigning against the cuts.
"There are indications ... that the review will be brought forward, and (its) terms of reference will be widened to address the current STFC crisis," said one campaign group in a statement. "If so, this could go some way towards addressing the concerns of the community in the short term, although we are still extremely worried about the impact of parts of the STFC delivery plan that have already been implemented."
An internal review from the STFC that sets out its own scientific priorities will be released in early March for a three-week consultation period.