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UK slashes funding for physics projects, students

December 17, 2009

The British physics community has been left staggering after yesterday’s announcement of cuts totalling more than £115-million ($198-million Cdn). The cuts are concentrated among projects in nuclear, space, and particle physics, though the government also announced cuts of 25% to PhD fellowships and student grants. The student cuts are particularly worrisome to University College London Professor Mark Lancaster, head of particle physics at the university who suggests “a lost generation of students will be created who are denied the opportunity to do a PhD and cutting-edge science”.

The cuts are part of a budget-balancing plan by the country’s Science and Technologies Facilities Council (STFC), a government agency created to oversee projects in astronomy, nuclear physics and particle physics. The STFC budget has been in dire  financial straits for some years, with this year’s spending an estimated £40-million over budget. The council therefore announced broad cuts, including 10% across-the-board cuts to exploitation grants, 25% cuts to new PhD funding, and withdrawal from several major international projects, including projects at CERN, the ALMA telescope array in Chile, at two particle detectors at Fermilab, the European X-Ray laser project (XFEL), the Photon Science Institute, and the New Light Source. Britain will also phase out participation in several internation space missions, including the Cassini probe to Saturn, the Venus Express orbiter, and the SOHO mission to the sun. Nuclear physics is facing cuts of 52% to its funding. Furthermore, an additional £71-million in unspecified cuts are planned for the next five years.

As expected, the physics community is in shock, and are arguing that these cuts will essentially dismantle Britain’s leadership in cutting edge physics. Some commentators are pointing out the short-sightedness of cutting nuclear physics funding at a time when Britain is expanding its nuclear power capabilities. Others are simply worried that the cuts undermine their government’s professed commitment to research. As quoted in PhysicsWorld.com:

This is one whole great big bombshell,” says particle physicist John Dainton from the Cockcroft Institute at Liverpool University in the UK, which is involved in planning the ILC. “How can administrators in government departments and the STFC get this so wrong? There must be a reason and incompetence comes to mind. We are furious. You are killing off the exploitation of years of investment.

This is obviously terrible news for British physics, and for the world physics community. Pulling out of major international projects certainly puts those projects at risk, and creates a precedent for other countries to renege on their commitments. Most worrisome for British science, though, is that these cuts are designed to address budgetary shortfalls that have persisted for years, and are not designed to address current government deficit spending. I’m afraid that research funding, like so many other spending programs, will be under increased pressure as governments seek to balance the budgets that have ballooned with stimulus spending during the recession, and the science community in Britain, as elsewhere, could be subject to even more cuts. Unnervingly, these cuts arrive just months after the UK prime minister promised a “ring-fence” around science funding. PM Gordon Brown stated in February that “The downturn is no time to slow down our investment in science but to build more vigorously for the future.”

Dark days for British physics.

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