'This is a big job needing to be done very quickly'

With physicists desperate to reverse cuts, a lot rides on Bill Wakeham's review. Zoe Corbyn writes

May 15, 2008

When a committee of MPs reported late last month on the thorny issue of cuts to Science and Technology Facilities Council programmes in the wake of an £80 million budget shortfall, it made one point very clear: "We recommend that the STFC wait for the results of the Wakeham review before implementing the cuts proposed in the (STFC 2007) delivery plan ... and that it use the time to consult with stakeholders."

The Government commissioned Bill Wakeham, the vice-chancellor of the University of Southampton, in December to lead eight other academics in an independent review of the overall health of physics following the STFC's announcement of cuts.

Although Professor Wakeham has admitted that he "probably" agrees that cuts should wait until his report, he stressed that the review has not been established to "second-guess" where the STFC should make cuts. "We are operating at a slightly higher level," he said.

The panel's biggest challenge is the limited time available for the review, Professor Wakeham said. "I am concerned that it is quite a tough call to do the best possible job in the time available ... this is a very big job needing to be done very quickly," he told Times Higher Education in his first detailed interview on the subject.

The review is officially scheduled to be delivered to Research Councils UK in September, but ministers have, according to Professor Wakeham, indicated that they would like to know the "direction of thinking" in July. This suggests that the review could potentially have some sway over the STFC's current funding decisions. Indeed, although the STFC has said that it will not wait while Wakeham reports to implement the cuts it detailed in its delivery plan, it is now promising to "defer decisions" on a future "investment plan" that is due to come out of a current review of its programmes.

But extensions to the timetable, Professor Wakeham said, are out of the question. "The physicists are putting the Government under very considerable pressure (to deliver the review quickly)."

The review's terms of reference include making recommendations on the priorities for investment in physics and the sustainable provision of physics-based facilities, as well as considering how to improve "the coherence of the UK physics programme". The panel is also expected to look at how physics can contribute more to other areas of research and to explore ways to improve opportunities for young researchers.

Specifically, Professor Wakeham said, he will deliver a judgment on whether the Government's "dipole" policy of having science and innovation campuses at both Harwell and Daresbury is sustainable and whether having a research council that funds both facilities and research - as the STFC was created last year to do - is the best policy.

"Of course, it has only just been set up in its particular way, but we have only just had this funding crisis," he said.

The panel, which held the second of three scheduled meetings last week, is still in evidence-gathering mode. It is mapping the physics landscape - where it is being done and who is funding it - and tracking the movement of graduates, which is important for monitoring the impact of investment in physics.

"Physics won't all be done in physics departments, but (also) in engineering departments, medicine departments ... even oceanography," Professor Wakeham explained.

His approach has also been to ask panel members to come up with "hypotheses" to test with data.

One such hypothesis he plans to examine is the oft-heard mantra that astronomy and particle physics are important vehicles for attracting students into undergraduate physics. "My personal opinion is (that) it is true ... but we need to explore whether there is any evidence," explained Professor Wakeham, who promised to speak to students and to tap into learned societies' data.

Another item for testing is how the UK's pattern of physics research is balanced across the different areas compared with other countries. "Ideally, we would like to know what the shape of funding in comparable countries is - and, if our pattern is very different, at least question why."

Another hypothesis Professor Wakeham wants to explore is whether some physics departments have a "slightly unfortunate" shape. This hypothesis was sparked by seeing just how vulnerable some physics departments have appeared in the face of the current funding crisis.

"The nature of the response from some has been that their whole economic foundation is threatened by a perturbation in one research council," he explained. "(But) having all your business relying mostly on two sources of money (home undergraduate students and the STFC) is very dangerous."

If the evidence suggests that physics departments are very narrowly focused, Professor Wakeham said, universities will have to work out whether it is because physics is being done outside dedicated departments in, for example, engineering departments, "in which case universities need to recognise that and not form conclusions about physics based on a partial (view of) physics departments". If that is not the case, he said, they will need to adopt "a broader spectrum of activity". Watch this space.

zoe.corbyn@tsleducation.com.

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