Top projects lose out in STFC cuts

Astrogrid and ILC funding trimmed, but eMerlin is spared. Zoe Corbyn and Melanie Newman report

July 10, 2008

The research projects that will lose funding as the Science and Technology Facilities Council attempts to make up an £80 million budget shortfall have been confirmed.

The eMerlin network of radio telescopes, which contains the famous Jodrell Bank Observatory owned by the University of Manchester, has been spared, although the university will need to find extra cash to ensure it remains viable.

Among the projects to lose their funding are: the Bison solar observatory network operated by the University of Birmingham and Sheffield Hallam University; the UK's "virtual observatory" for astronomers, known as Astrogrid; and projects related to the International Linear Collider.

Cuts to particle physics, astronomy and nuclear physics projects will save £33 million over the three years of the current budget cycle. The STFC aims to save £38 million through economies in the operation of facilities and £9 million from its own administration and laboratories. About 70 STFC employees will take voluntary redundancy.

Keith Mason, the STFC chief executive, said the council had "agreed on a very ambitious and scientifically sound programme of funding" after some "difficult but necessary choices" in formulating a funding programme worth a total of £1.9 billion over three years.

The cuts have been made broadly in line with the advice that the STFC received from its science advisory board and committees.

The UK will withdraw its support from international projects including the BaBar particle detector and the Veritas telescope system, both based in the US.

The Bepi-Colombo mission to send a probe to Venus in 2013 will not be cut, despite being designated a low priority for funding, because of agreements between the UK and the European Space Agency.

A council spokesman said the funding cuts would be phased in. "We will ... ramp down funding at an expeditious but appropriate rate in consultation with the principle investigators/stakeholders," he said.

Responsibility for funding nuclear physics switched from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council to the STFC when the latter was created in April 2007. Academics in the field complained that they had been hit particularly badly. About 40 per cent of nuclear physics academics will receive no base funding via rolling grants for at least the next three years, they said.

Rolf-Dietmar Herzberg, professor of physics at the University of Liverpool and chairman of the Nuclear Physics Forum, said: "We did not expect such a severe cutback of our core science programmes."

The House of Commons debated the science budget allocations on 7 July. Phil Willis, chairman of the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee, said: "The fact that (the STFC) will spend almost £2 billion over the next three years on what is a hugely exciting programme is something that we should now support, instead of raking over old coals.

"Of course, there have been some losers in the funding round, but there have also been some big winners."

zoe.corbyn@tsleducation.com.

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