Resource starvation threatens UK physics

May 19, 2000

British physics is in danger of losing its place as a leading player in the world economy, according to two reports published this week.

Young physicists are being neglected, says an international review by two research councils and two representative organisations. Meanwhile, particle physicists and astronomers say Pounds 133 million must be invested in fundamental science immediately.

"At its best, research in physics and astronomy in the United Kingdom is at the very highest level worldwide. Beneath the scientific peaks of excellence, however, UK physics research quality noticeably drops, largely due to a lack of adequate resources," the 11-strong international panel noted.

The panel said the plight of young researchers employed by universities on a series of short-term contracts was "unacceptable".

"The existing salary structure is not internationally competitive and is a significant disincentive. The creation of long-term research positions in universities should be encouraged in order to avoid the current situation whereby many physicists are trapped in a series of successive short-term, low-paid appointments," the report recommends.

Sir Gareth Roberts, vice-chancellor of the University of Sheffield and president of the Institute of Physics, who chaired the steering group, said:

"We note (the panel's) perception that British physics research is only slowly emerging from a long period of chronic underfunding. Key infrastructure and research capacity have only just survived this under-investment. The Institute of Physics calls for these capabilities to be upgraded and modernised to avoid severe damage to the nation's research base."

The Pounds 133 million necessary for immediate investment was computed by the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council during a year-long consultation exercise within the research community as well as an international review designed to pinpoint specific areas of work thought vital in the future.

Its report Unveiling the Universe places the council in an awkward position when government budget restrictions mean there are resources only to meet a proportion of the outlined needs.

The panel chairmen says in the foreword: "Without adequate funding the nation and its scientists will fall far behind in the international league of scientific discovery and innovative technology exploitation. We cannot let this happen."

International Perceptions of UK Res-earch in Physics and Astronomy, published by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, the Particle Physics and Astronomy Res-earch Council, the Institute of Physics and the Royal Astronomical Society.

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