The driving force behind the effort to halt cuts to physics

UCL's Mark Lancaster campaigns to preserve funding for his discipline. Zoe Corbyn reports

April 10, 2008

Mark Lancaster can usually be found doing his research at night between the hours of 11pm and 2am. "It helps because my experiment is in America," explained the 40-year-old particle physicist from University College London.

But the main reason for Dr Lancaster's strange working hours is that his days are consumed almost completely by a campaign against proposed funding cuts to particle physics and astronomy research.

Dr Lancaster, along with six other particle physicists, is the organiser of a grassroots campaign to oppose cuts to his subject. The reductions were announced after a disappointing result in the Government's three-year budget settlement, which left the Science and Technology Facilities Council with an £80 million budget shortfall.

The campaign on behalf of the particle physics community - with astronomers running a parallel campaign - has attracted a groundswell of support and has brought the issue to the top of the political agenda.

"I wouldn't be able to live with myself if I had done nothing," Dr Lancaster said of his involvement in the group, which is loosely connected to the Institute of Physics and was formed soon after the shortfall was announced in November. "I couldn't sit back and see people lose their jobs and not say anything."

Particle physics and astronomy are in for a major upheaval following the cuts. The UK's involvement in the International Linear Collider particle accelerator is to cease (although the country's Gemini Observatory involvement recently received a last-minute reprieve), astronomy research grants are to be cut by 25 per cent, jobs at the STFC's own laboratories are being scaled back, and all STFC projects are currently under review to determine where further cuts will fall.

Backbench MPs on the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee have weighed in with an inquiry that is due to report in the middle of this month. The Government, following receipt of a petition signed by 17,530 people, has also set up a review of the health of the disciplines, although it is not known if it will scrutinise the current crisis.

Reports on the fallout in the UK media have been continuous, and Dr Lancaster counts about 140 news items to date. "Jodrell Bank observatory faces closure" was a front-page headline in The Times last month.

The group runs a website for particle physicists, which Dr Lancaster updates, to track the minutiae of developments.

It also works behind the scenes briefing journalists and making as many people as possible - vice-chancellors, students, overseas researchers - aware of the impact and mobilising them to campaign.

"A lot of the publicity and impact we generated came from the bottom up," Dr Lancaster said of the group, which also lodges Freedom of Information requests to gain access to documents that have not been made public.

"We have tried to get information out there because part of the problem (particularly in the early days) was that there was not a lot."

Concern, he said, has come from every level. "People's families are getting involved and teachers have e-mailed us saying, 'What is happening, this is outrageous, and why are they doing this?'"

The group's other members are Brian Cox of the University of Manchester (and a former member of 1990s pop group D:Ream); Phil Allport of the University of Liverpool; Mike Green of Royal Holloway, University of London; James Stirling of Durham University; and Brian Foster and Ken Peach, both of the University of Oxford.

As Dr Lancaster sees it, the campaign against the cuts has been positive both in alerting people to the situation and leading to some important changes.

"I think the success has been to see a gradual softening in the STFC's statements and the Government's statements. The STFC has started to communicate better than it did."

Not everyone shares his view of the campaign as a success. Sir Keith O'Nions - who is in charge of the research councils for the Government - recently suggested that the campaign was doing more damage to the UK's international reputation than the STFC.

Each day Dr Lancaster faces a "deluge" of e-mails and phone calls as particle physicists try to make sense of their situation. They are waiting to see which projects the STFC will axe.

The STFC's Science Board has released a draft list, and ten independent panels representing different subject areas are pondering whether the list should be reconsidered in light of 1,250 submissions from the community. The STFC's council will make the final decisions on the cuts and announce them in July.

More money aside, what Dr Lancaster and his fellow particle physicists would like most is some flexibility from the Government over how research council budgets are distributed.

"On a science budget of several billion pounds, to be firing people for the sake of £80 million seems ludicrous. There needs to be some flexibility so that people don't necessarily have to lose their jobs," Dr Lancaster said.

"This research is vital to the UK."

zoe.corbyn@tsleducation.com.

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