Stepping down as science takes off

November 26, 2004

Being in charge of Britain's "big science" budget used to be a frustrating experience, with too many opportunities and too little cash. But Ian Halliday, the outgoing chief executive of the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council, argues that his successor will benefit from a much sunnier research climate.

With only four months to go until he closes the door of his Swindon office and walks away from a budget of nearly £300 million, Professor Halliday is in high spirits. "The real change I see in universities is that our academic community is feeling much more aggressive," he explains proudly. "They can think radically and start pushing things. There is a feeling of released energy."

Yet other senior research council figures warn that Professor Halliday, who has never been shy about shouting for extra funds for his disciplines, is speaking a little too soon.

The Treasury's ten-year investment framework for science may have been generous, with science funding rising to £5 billion by 2007-08. But the allocation of money to individual councils has been put back to next March, and with very little money earmarked for new science projects there is still much to play for.

Whether Pparc's ambitious bid is funded remains to be seen. It includes a pitch for £100 million for the UK's role in the next big international particle physics project, a linear collider that will be used to answer questions about dark energy and the fundamental nature of space and time.

But Professor Halliday insists that after years of insufficient funding the political will in general, and Lord Sainsbury, the Science Minister, in particular, are on Pparc's side.

"There used to be a feeling that investing in huge international projects like Cern (Europe's particle physics laboratory based in Geneva) was wasting British taxpayers' money," he explains.

"But now it has turned into the message that collaboration is good and we should all be collaborating internationally."

As proof of this, he adds that Lord Sainsbury has pushed him to take the lead in setting up a possible collaboration between the European Space Organisation and the US to develop the next generation of seriously big telescopes, capable of seeing more blue planets around the stars.

"If you had asked me in 1991 if the UK would be taking a lead in Europe, it would have been a sick joke. Our problem was survival," he says. "You can't hesitate or you get left behind. It is a very competitive and quite an aggressive world."

What he describes as his "glass-half-full" approach extends to the threat of closure hanging over many university physics departments.

He is annoyed with the Institute of Physics - which has launched a passionate campaign to turn schoolchildren onto science and save physics in higher education - because he feels it has painted the situation in too pessimistic a light.

"The IoP would say there are huge problems recruiting teachers, which is a negative message," he says. "Whereas in public I would say physics graduates can earn so much money elsewhere that teaching in a high school is not attractive - that is a positive message about physics."

He argues that what one tells Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, over coffee should be different from what one says in the newspapers.

"The IOP has at times been in real danger of making things worse," he says firmly.

Nonetheless, Professor Halliday understands the pressures faced by universities. He has worked in physics departments for much of his working life, first as a research fellow at Christ's College, Cambridge, and latterly juggling budgets as head of the physics department at the University of Wales, Swansea.

He blames the difficulties they now face in attracting students on the decline in the standard of maths and physics education at secondary school level.

"My father was a maths teacher (in Scotland) and his staff could not do the Highers (exams) by the time he retired," he comments wryly.

Many institutions are fighting to lure students by rebadging core physics courses as astronomy - tapping into the excitement generated by glamorous high-profile projects such as last year's Beagle 2 mission to Mars.

Professor Halliday does not turn his nose up at this. "If astronomy is sexy, that's ok as far as we're concerned." He is now waiting for particle physics to make itself "sexy" too.

But, he adds hastily: "Astronomers may argue that their community is growing so they need more money and that's where I get nervous. Research funding should not be driven by student demand."

Professor Halliday is keeping quiet about where he will go when he leaves on April 1 next year. But with a passion for science policy - especially at a European level - many in his sector predict that he won't go back to a university-based role.

The Office of Science and Technology is believed to be in the final stages of recruiting his successor. And Professor Halliday is already a little envious of him.

"My successor will have all these problems behind him, and the ten-year investment plan for science in front," he says. "We were playing catch up, but he can be more visionary."

anna.fazackerley@thes.co.uk

I GRADUATED FROM
Edinburgh University

MY FIRST JOB WAS
as an instructor at Princeton University

MY MAIN CHALLENGE IS
getting young UK scientists to take risks and tackle hard problems

WHAT I HATE MOST IS
transparent deviousness

IN TEN YEARS
we'll have solved the standard model, understood the origin of mass, found 100 blue planets and looked at the universe through gravitational waves

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