Sunday, 24 February 2008

Plugging the hole

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (sipri) the UK spent $59.2 bn during 2006 on military spending alone. While many graduates in the physical sciences go into defense related areas, it seems like the UK government is perilously playing with the future of physics in the UK; just because of a 'missing' $150 m in the budget of a leading funding council, peanuts compared to the vast sums spent on defense.

The council in question is the Science and Technology Facilities council (STFC) which funds most large scale physics experiments, such as the UK's contribution to CERN, the building and maintenance of the diamond synchrotron, providing research groups with grants as well as providing the funds for the next generation of big experiments (The International Linear Collider (ILC), for example).

Now, even though $150 m in the grand scale of things is not very much (think about the $ 50 bn loan that the bank of England gave to the troubled mortgage lender Northern Rock) the damage that it proposes to do to particle physics and astronomy is vast and the knock on effect to physics as a whole cant be ignored.

Whether it was just timing in the proposals cycle or an ulterior motive, the knock on effect for particle physics is particularly stark. Not only pulling funding out of the ILC -- that hopes to be the next big particle physics experiment after the LHC at CERN which will come on-line this year -- but also cutting research grants by 25 % in particle physics and Astronomy. It seems at first hand that areas such as condensed matter are relatively unscathed. The big facilities that are planned in the UK in condensed matter research, such as the Diamond light source or the second target station at ISIS have already or are well on the way to completion. It seems most probable that particle physics-- in terms of the ILC -- is just a lame duck(it is at this moment only planned), that has now been dealt its first shot. Similarly in ground based Astronomy, the UK is currently negotiating its subscription to the Gemini telescopes in Hawaii and Chile which runs out in the summer this year.

Although there seems to be no big effect on the closure of physics departments at universities, it will definitely cause concern to groups that are currently doing R&D into the ILC.

The reasons for getting in this mess are far from clear, and it is probably a mixture of many things: One the merger of two funding councils the PPARC and CCLRC into what is now the STFC only last summer would have brought some teething troubles. International subscriptions such as CERN are linked to GDP, which for the UK has increased which means increased payouts. The funding council has also taken on fluctuations in foreign currency, which before was protected by the government, and lastly there is the auspicious area of the economics of research grants. Recently the Full Economic Costs (FEC) have gone up to 80 %, this means that funding councils have to pay 80% of the indirect costs, such as lab infrastructure and permeant staff, before funding councils only had to provide money for temporary staff and special lab equipment and around 40-50% of the indirect costs.

Though one can argue whether the reasons above could have been avoided or not. The decision process that has led to pulling out of the ILC and Gemini telescopes is what has angered physicists the most. Without seemingly any consultation the council has ceased investment disproportionately among research fields. The outcry has been enormous and has probably surprised both the council and the government., which quickly released a review into the discipline. The review is likely more like a smokescreen as it will not try to reverse the decision taken by the STFC.

The media coverage of the events is already having an effect on graduates who are looking to go onto PhD's. Some say that the uncertainty is making them leave physics altogether to go into industry, a worrying trend.

All belts need to be tightened, yet the hole is not so deep, and a review wont cover it up....

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