STFC slashes funding for astronomy and physics

Effort to plug £40 million hole will involve cuts in studentships, fellowships and grants. Zoë Corbyn reports

December 16, 2009

Deep cuts have been announced in funding for astronomy and physics research as the Science and Technology Facilities Council faces up to a major budget deficit.

Departments across the UK will be affected as the council attempts to plug a £40 million hole in its current budget and put itself on a more sustainable footing for the future.

Physicists and astronomers should expect a 25 per cent cut in studentships and fellowships and a 10 per cent cut in grants from next year.

The measures announced on 16 December also include the UK’s “managed withdrawal” from a wide range of internationally important projects.

But the effects of the funding crisis will be felt by other researchers too, after other research councils agreed a last-minute bailout package for the STFC worth £14 million.

The STFC, which will receive the money in 2010-11, also intends to make £11 million in internal savings.

The list of 24 projects that the STFC will withdraw from, marking a £115 million reduction over five years, cover astronomy, particle physics, nuclear physics and space projects.

Flagship projects include:

* The ALICE collaboration, which is working to exploit the benefits of the Large Hadron Collider at Cern in Geneva

* The Cassini Huygens mission studying Saturn – a joint mission between the European Space Agency and Nasa

The UK will also withdraw from facilities, ending its participation in the European X-Ray Laser Project based in Hamburg and the twin Gemini telescopes, which it plans to exit in 2012.

Plans to build a fourth-generation light source – a potentially revolutionary facility to study molecules and chemical reactions – have also been shelved.

The new five-year, £2.4 billion investment programme outlined is based on a “flat-cash” projection for the next Comprehensive Spending Review period. It does not factor in the announcement in the pre-Budget report last week that the education and science budgets are to be cut by £600 million in 2011-13.

Michael Sterling, chairman of the STFC, said: “The council of the STFC has approved an affordable, robust and sustainable programme. This has involved tough choices affecting the entire programme. This is a major reorganisation of our programme to focus on the top priority items making use of the international subscriptions that, while costly, allow UK scientists critically important access to world-class facilities.”

The plans are based on recommendations from scientists on the STFC’s science board.

Cuts to space projects will save £42 million, and cuts to astronomy projects will save £39 million. Particle physics projects will be cut by £32 million and nuclear physics projects by £12 million.

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