STFC cuts hit research centre budgets

Short-term reductions preface further funding losses. Zoë Corbyn reports

June 29, 2009

The Science and Technology Facilities Council is to reduce funding at three UK flagship research facilities this financial year, to bring its programme within budget.

The Diamond Light Source – the UK’s national synchrotron facility – will lose 10 per cent of its budget (about £3 million) for 2009-10, reducing the STFC’s contribution to £26.3 million.

The research centre, which opened in 2007 and is financed partly by the Wellcome Trust, supports “ground-breaking research in the life, physical and environmental sciences”.

The STFC-operated Isis Neutron Facility will have its funding cut by about 9 per cent, or £2 million. Its new budget for 2009-10 will be £23.5 million.

Operations at the Central Laser Facility will also be reduced.

The cuts were described by one critic as a “short-term and penny-pinching” move that represented an “ill omen” for physics research. They follow an announcement by the STFC in May that it had received about £12 million less for 2009-10 from the Government than it was anticipating.

The council stated that it would not have enough to cover the full science programme planned after its review last year. It received only £491 million of its forecast requirement of £503 million in recurrent funding.

Funding is also to be “rephased” for a number of projects including MoonLITE. The mission, which aims to place a satellite in orbit around the Moon and shoot darts below the surface to probe the interior structure, will be deferred until April 2010.

In addition, about £200,000 is to be shaved off the 2009-10 combined budgets of the Cambridge Astronomical Survey Unit and the Wide Field Astronomy Unit, which are part of the universities of Cambridge and Edinburgh, respectively.

In a statement, Keith Mason, STFC chief executive, said the impact of the international financial situation had required the STFC to adjust its programme.

“We have done so after consultation with our scientific advisory bodies,” he said.

He stressed that the programme had maintained funding for standard and rolling grants at the level previously forecast for 2009-10. Researchers had feared that the budget would be cut.

The STFC has also begun a fresh audit to help identify long-term cuts to research programmes and facilities for 2010-11 and beyond, which it intends to complete by October. “Of necessity, this will involve asking tough questions about the future direction of our science and technology programme,” Professor Mason added.

Robert Kirby-Harris, chief executive of the Institute of Physics, branded the strategy “short-term and penny-pinching” and called for more commitment from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

“Today’s announcement from the STFC… is an ill omen that flies contrary to advice from the Wakeham Review on the health of physics at a time when a strong science base is crucial for economic recovery,” he said. “Further threats to the amount of scientific research being undertaken next year by the STFC raise alarm bells, and there appears to be no end of bad news in sight for this particular research council.”

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