STFC could lose oversight of international links

December 31, 2009

Responsibility for subscriptions to international facilities could be taken out of the hands of the Science and Technology Facilities Council and given to central government.

The shift is being considered after Lord Drayson, the Science Minister, announced that he was to review the STFC's remit urgently following swingeing cuts to astronomy and physics set out by the council earlier this month.

The cuts, which are based on a "flat-cash" projection for the next Comprehensive Spending Review period, include a 25 per cent cut in studentships and fellowships, a 10 per cent cut in grants and the "managed withdrawal" from a number of projects.

The savings are being sought as the council tries to plug a £40 million hole in its budget and establish a sustainable footing for the future.

Part of the problem is the higher costs of subscriptions to international scientific facilities caused by the falling value of the pound.

Lord Drayson has said that he will examine the "tensions" caused by a single research council having responsibility for both subscriptions and grants by the end of February 2010.

Michael Stirling, chair of the STFC, told Times Higher Education that other countries "use their treasury" to oversee international subscriptions.

Meanwhile, nuclear physicists - who believe their budget has suffered disproportionately compared with space, particle physics or astronomy - have voiced their ire at the cuts.

In the latest attack on the STFC, they have plotted the fields of the scientists recommending the decisions against the percentages of cuts, showing that nuclear physicists were outnumbered by a factor of five to ten by the other fields.

Wilton Catford, a nuclear physicist at the University of Surrey, said: "We are not actually accusing people, necessarily, of out and out bias. It's more a case of turkeys not voting for Christmas ... even if acting in all good faith, there has to be a natural tendency for people in, say, particle physics, to understand projects in particle physics more fully and easily, and to have some more favourable predisposition for this reason."

The STFC denied that nuclear physicists had in any way been "singled out" in the process.

zoe.corbyn@tsleducation.com.

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