Scientists at Oxford fear lab closures

May 13, 2005

Two of the world's largest and most prestigious science departments, Oxford University's physics and chemistry faculties, face a funding crisis that is threatening jobs and laboratory space.

Some Oxford dons claim that internal university policies are exacerbating general problems of underfunding that are affecting chemistry and physics departments across the country.

Graham Richards, chairman of chemistry at Oxford, says the amount the university charges its departments for space is becoming "prohibitive" and may result in the loss of laboratories and staff.

An "infrastructure charge" that covers space used, central administration costs, estates management and the use of libraries is to rise from £150 to £200 a square metre later this year.

In the meantime, the chemistry and the physics departments have been given 12 months to clear a deficit of about £1 million.

Professor Richards said: "It means we will have to give up space - perhaps an entire laboratory. We will also have to be careful about refilling posts. In time, redundancies may be the only option."

Oxford's chemistry department is the biggest in the Western world, and it educates more PhD students than any university in North America.

But Professor Richards said: "We will not be able to maintain this eminence if we have to be constantly concerned about funding."

Physics is understood to be in an even more difficult position. It has no reserves to call on to cushion the impact of cuts. The 5*-rated department is one of the UK's largest.

Simon Fowle, senior administrator for physics at Oxford, told The Times Higher that every option was being explored to find savings, including reducing space, managing it in a way that links its use to income and reviewing posts.

"I am not ruling out redundancies. We may have to find ways to redeploy people around the university," he said.

Some academics have complained that the university has been overspending on central administration costs and leaving departments to foot the bill.

Oxford has admitted that a computer-based financial system introduced last year has cost at least £5 million more than expected, although some believe the figure could be as high as £12 million.

Professor Richards said: "The money that has gone on that system could have been used to wipe out our deficits."

A university representative said that the funding problems of the two departments were similar to those experienced in institutions across the country.

Physics at Oxford has received extra funding from the university to provide short-term support while it conducts a "full review of all aspects of its operation".

The representative said the infrastructure charge was levied to encourage departments to use space efficiently and increases to it would be offset by the introduction of full economic costing of research this year.

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