STFC cuts will lead to “brain drain”, claim scientists

The chairs of five of the council’s panels have expressed concerns over plans to axe more than 40 scientific projects. Zoë Corbyn reports

January 12, 2010

They were the scientists given the unenviable job of identifying where swingeing cuts to physics and astronomy research might do the least damage. But they have now written an open letter to the science minister to register their “dismay” at the outcome.

On 16 December, the Science and Technology Facilities Council announced a swath of cuts to deal with a £40 million black hole in its finances.

The reductions, 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.

But now the chairs of five STFC panels, whose advice was used to help prioritise projects for cuts, have written to protest against what they describe as the destruction of their subjects and the waste of money that they believe will result.

In an open letter to Science Minister Lord Drayson, published exclusively at Times Higher Education online (see attachment, right), five professors: Philip Burrows, from the University of Oxford; Michele Dougherty, from Imperial College London; Martin Freer, from the University of Birmingham; Philip Mauskopf, from Cardiff University; and Bob Nichol, from the University of Portsmouth, call on the Government to “take action” to help ameliorate the situation.

They warn that the cuts will “almost inevitably” damage the UK by creating a “brain drain”, by making it harder to attract good people from overseas, and by making the UK look like an “untrustworthy” partner for global research projects.

Professor Burrows said the group had already written to the chair of the STFC Council, Michael Sterling, to point out that the cuts would mean that much prior investment would now be wasted.

“STFC’s decision to axe more than 40 scientific projects amounts to a breathtaking waste of prior investment of taxpayers’ money in building UK leadership in fundamental science,” he told Times Higher Education, “Even worse, as things stand, there is practically no vision, let alone support, for research that would keep the UK at the scientific frontier beyond the next 5-10 years.”

The letter also points to the inconsistency between the Prime Minister’s rhetoric to preserve funding for science, and the situation now facing physics and astronomy researchers.

It pins the blame for the problem not only on the increased subscription costs for international scientific collaborations caused by the collapse of the pound, but also on the structure and management of the STFC.

“[The STFC] is structurally incapable of managing both an internationally leading fundamental science programme and domestic facilities that are used primarily by scientists funded by other research councils,” it says.

zoe.corbyn@tsleducation.com

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