Scots fear cash cuts will hit astronomy

Minister says the UK science council's bid to save £80 million puts observatory jobs at risk. Tariq Tahir and Zoe Corbyn report

February 21, 2008

A Scottish government minister has written to John Denham, Britain's Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, warning that proposed cuts to physics research funding will damage Scotland's universities and the wider economy north of the border.

Jim Mather's letter follows news last year that the budget of the Science and Technology Facilities Council was short by £80 million.

He is particularly concerned about the future of the UK Astronomy Technology Centre (ATC), based at the Royal Observatory Edinburgh, where 50 jobs are at risk.

Mr Mather, Scotland's Minister for Enterprise, Energy and Tourism, said: "The observatory is world-renowned, making a huge contribution to astronomical innovation and design. The proposed budget cut will inevitably impact on research in Scotland's universities and research facilities and the economy of Scotland more generally. The cuts would also damage world-leading physics research in our universities. At a time when the number of students taking physics has, as in the rest of the UK, seen a decline in recent years, these cuts signal yet more difficulties in the future supply of physicists to high-technology sectors that are vital to our long-term economic competitiveness."

Tony Bell, the national secretary of scientists' union Prospect, said management at the ATC have sent out official notification that there could be up to 50 redundancies.

He said the news that the STFC was holding off on compulsory redundancy until the summer had brought hopes of a reprieve. But he added: "Staff are still in fear of their jobs. Quite clearly this will have a major impact on the technology base in Scotland - it's a big hit. And of course it's a historical institution at grave risk of being destroyed."

  • Mr Mather's intervention came as the Royal Astronomical Society hit out at the STFC over how it has handled the cuts.

A statement from the RAS expressed a "lack of confidence in STFC's handling of the current funding crisis". It said the STFC had "failed miserably to communicate with the community" and accused it of paying "lip service" to the need to foster the academic community.

"STFC claims its delivery plan has been arrived at through a process of peer review ... (but) the community has no confidence in this process and is unlikely to accept the outcome as fair," it said.

"The 25 per cent decline in grants across the (three-year Comprehensive Spending Review) period, with no sign of any intention or even desire to level this out in later years, has filled the community with deep pessimism and anger."

  • The panel membership for the Wakeham review of physics has been announced, one member short of the number originally planned.

There will be nine members, including Bill Wakeham, the University of Southampton vice-chancellor who will chair the panel. There are six UK academics: Mike Brady, department of engineering science, University of Oxford; Donal Bradley, head of the department of physics, Imperial College London; Martin Barstow, head of the department of physics and astronomy, University of Leicester; Sir Richard Friend, professor of physics, University of Cambridge; Carlos Frenk, director of the Institute for Computational Cosmology, Durham University; and Christine Davies, University of Glasgow. Two overseas academics, Jurgen Kjems, Technical University of Denmark, and Richard Peltier, University of Toronto, will join them.

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